Yes, Zelensky was elected as the peace candidate. But I’d go further and say when Petro Poroshenko was elected in May 2014, he was also putting himself forward as the peace candidate — people also elected him seeing him as an oligarch with close ties with Russia and so on. Yet neither of them could go forward with cooling tensions.
In December 2019, the Normandy Format met with Germany, Ukraine, Russia, and France, and Zelensky’s chief of staff tried to go forward with that process. Yet even while they were meeting, people were mobilizing in the Maidan saying that they wouldn’t accept any negotiation or any implementation of the Minsk II agreement if it involved giving any autonomy to the Donbass.
So, the first factor is that there’s a very highly mobilized, radicalized minority within Ukraine, which holds policy hostage. Second, this minority — though there’s a silence about some of its more odious extremes — is supported geopolitically by the Western powers, by what I call the Atlantic power system. It’s not just NATO, but, scandalously in my view, the European Union, which really hasn’t upheld its own principles.
Zelensky has been even worse than Poroshenko in undermining Russian-language cultural and media institutions in Ukraine and for pushing a distorted view of history. So, in a sense, external and internal factors have coalesced. But despite all that, opinion polls show Ukrainians are still divided, although there has been a coalescence in favor of defending Ukrainian state sovereignty.
In fact, Ukrainians in general are a very peace-loving people. That’s why it’s so catastrophic that now we’re talking about war and conflict. But all this is part of a bigger picture, a second cold war. If it is indeed a genuine cold war, then we need to learn how to manage conflict. I’m arguing that today we’re in a slow-motion Cuban missile crisis. In October 1962, it was resolved peacefully. Jupiter missiles were taken out of Turkey, and the Soviet Union removed its missiles, and the United States promised not to invade Cuba.
That is ultimately what Putin wants, and Boris Yeltsin before him, and before that, Mikhail Gorbachev always argued the expansion of the Atlantic military security system to Russia’s borders was unacceptable. So, this question has been dragging on for thirty years now. Putin said in his 2018 State of the Nation speech, “You didn’t listen to us then, so listen to us now” — when he announced hypersonic missiles and so on. That’s the background to where we are today.
But ultimately, society is internally divided within Ukraine. There’s a huge peace contingent, yet the worst elements of the Ukrainian polity are exacerbated by Western support for short-term geopolitical advantage. Even not long ago, Ukraine was committed to neutrality. If Ireland can be neutral, if Austria can be neutral, if Finland can be neutral, then why can’t Ukraine, especially since there’s a large constituency for it within Ukraine itself? This was, after all, official Ukrainian policy until the neonationalist seizure of power in 2014.