President Volodymyr Zelensky at the US Congress (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The Zelensky dilemma

Rhetoric will not end the war

Artillery Row

The day before Christmas, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky held the US Congress spellbound with a speech that was a call to arms. The sense of a great communicator at work was clear. But if you listened in, you heard the dilemma to come in 2023 as the adulation fades and people turn to the thornier question of how to end the war.

“His tone and his message were pitch-perfect”, to quote one Democratic Senator, offering the thought that Zelensky’s secret journey from Kiev, via clandestine train out of his country, then US military plane from Poland, mirrored Churchill’s adventures across the Atlantic in World War Two. “I defy any member of the Congress not be in awe of the man,” he added, “and his courage, And not to support him and his people.”

To which a leading Republican retorted: “Of course you applaud the man, but that doesn’t mean we keep the cheque-book open for this war going forward.” Noticeably, some Republican members of the House of Representatives stayed away from Zelensky’s speech. The new House will be sworn in during the first week of 2023 with some loud voices saying, in effect, that Ukraine is not America’s war.

The two warring leaders now feed off each other’s determination to win

A veteran foreign Ambassador, joining us for dinner fresh from listening to Zelensky with the diplomatic corps inside the Congress, had the sharpest thought. “Ukraine has our hearts, for sure, but for how long? And how much are we all prepared to pay, be it for food, or energy, or weapons for them to fight on against Putin?” The more you listen to the infamous Washington Beltway, that nexus of political in-fighting and special interests, the more you question Washington’s (and hence the world’s) stamina for this war.

The Biden Administration preaches unity, within and without — be it pushing through a new package of weaponry and money for Ukraine in the year-end budget negotiations, or exhorting allies in Europe to stay the course. The belief among the President’s closest advisers is that Putin and Zelensky may have nothing to talk about for 4-5 bloodsoaked years of a war of attrition.

The tell-tale signs of the battle to come in Washington, then Paris and Berlin, even London, are there to see, amidst the growing realisation that the two warring leaders now feed off each other’s determination to win at all costs — that one needs the other to reject the very notion of compromise and pursue this war into an indefinite future.

Take America’s top General, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley, not attempting to disguise his belief that Russia’s patent inability to win this war should be seen as a cue for peace negotiations. “We’ve seen the Ukrainian military fight Russia’s army to a standstill,” said General Milley in a sober Yuletide TV appearance, noting US intelligence concludes Putin’s army is running out of strategic weaponry. “Seize the moment … there are possibilities here for some diplomatic solutions.”

Then consider the make-up of the Republican leadership, taking control of the House of Representatives. Much as the outgoing Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, might have waved the Ukrainian flag behind President Zelensky as he spoke, that was very much her swansong. 

The fellow most likely to inherit, Californian Republican Kevin McCarthy, will have to buy off anti-war members: America Firsters, who want to stop funding and arming Zelensky. McCarthy, a man of fairly naked ambition rather than beliefs, has served notice that he accepts their mantra: no more blank cheque for Kiev. 

Factor in the poster-boy of the American right, Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, and you can see where the Republican party is heading. Carlson, who enjoys extraordinary clout among the party’s base, spent the holiday season savaging Zelensky (starting with the military fatigues he wore to the White House meeting with Joe Biden — “disrespectful” apparently). 

How long will the French and the Germans suffer energy shortages?

Carlson has demonised Zelensky’s leadership back home. “Zelensky is a dictator, who has no interest in democracy and freedom,” preaches Carlson. “He is far closer to Lenin than George Washington.” No wonder Russia’s state TV praises Carlson effusively, as he holds forth in the American heartland. “I don’t care what Putin does, one way or another, in Ukraine,” says Carlson, “It’s not more significant to me than what gas costs.” Ah, there’s a message that hits home, aimed at the wallet of Middle America.

Then there’s the trailer for what some in the Biden administration see coming not just at home but in old Europe. How long will the French and the Germans, the key players, suffer the consequences of energy shortages, coupled with dramatic price rises, created by turning off the Russian spigot of oil and gas? 

How long before French President Emmanuel Macron returns to his earlier broadside at the table of the Allies? Previously, he insisted that Russia not be humiliated but rather be brought to a conversation. Macron and Biden enjoyed a state visit of rare unity before Christmas, but the bottom line as they linked arms at the White House was: talking to Putin, devil incarnate perhaps, remained possible for them both.

To some Washington veterans, the writing’s on the wall as the new year starts, and Putin himself floats the idea of a negotiated settlement. At some point the Americans may have to lead the way in cajoling Zelensky to swallow hard, produce a peace plan, then go to the table. Ukraine can, of course, demand Putin’s withdrawal, massive reparations, even trials for war crimes. But Zelensky must listen to any counter-offer.

“Much as we might think Washington holds all the cards in that conversation,” says one former White House adviser, “the variable will be not just Putin’s murderous madness but whether, after being hailed as a modern-day Churchill, Zelensky really listens.” Dilemma indeed.

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