The Zelensky Effect
By Femi Olugbile
The title of this piece calls to mind a thriller from James Hadley Chase or Robert Ludlum, but matters afoot are much more serious, with vastly more dire implications than the outcome of any thriller fiction.
Volodymr Zelensky was born was born on the 25th of January 1978 in Kryvyy Rih, in Ukraine, which was then one of the Soviet Socialist Republics. His parents were Jews. He graduated with a law degree in 2000. He embarked on a career in theatre and comedy, becoming famous for a remarkable television series titled ‘Servant of the People ‘. In the drama, Zelensky played the role of a maverick Ukrainian who was unexpectedly elected to the office of President.
In 2018, Zelensky in real life contested and won the presidential election against the incumbent Petro Poroshenko.
In office he showed himself as an adept administrator and mobiliser. He attempted to work for greater unity with Russian-speaking parts of the country. He relied heavily on the social media, especially Instagram, for his communication.
Zelensky has the unique identity of being the first President of Jewish extraction, in a country where extreme right wing sentiments are present among significant sections of the population, and where some people have been accused, rightly or wrongly, of harbouring pro-NAZI sentiments.
One of his key election promises was to end the low-grade civil war that was already raging in some dissident areas of the country, where many people claimed affinity with Russia. In October 2019, he was able to announce a preliminary deal with the separatists. The deal required that Ukrainian government respect the ‘elections’ the in the Dumbas region, while Russia would withdraw the soldiers it had sent into the region under anonymous cover.
Zelensky’s presidency was bedeviled early by a bullying President Trump who demanded that he should carry out intrusive investigations into the affairs of Hunter Biden, a businessman who had dealings in Ukraine, to acquire political dirt on his father Joe Biden, who was contesting with Trump for the Presidency of the United States of America.
The prospect of Ukraine becoming a member of NATO had, for several years, been a major sore point in the relationship with Russia. Russia resented the increasing encroachment of the Western military alliance on the shrinking belt of former Soviet Republics which had become independent entities following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
By the beginning of 2021, Russia was showing its war-like intent towards Ukraine. It began a massive military build-up on their common border. The story of the past three months, in Western and Eastern Europe, is the story of the war that President Vladimir Putin of Russia went on to unleash on his neighbour.
The Russo-Ukrainian war is an aberration in the modern day – a war of conquest on the European mainland fought with brutal intensity and near-total disdain for the rules of War, as defined by the Geneva Convention. Civilian home have been attacked, and high-rise residential buildings reduced to rubble. Schools and places of worship have not been spared. The dead have included thousands of non-combatant men, women and children.
The rationalizations provided by Russia, the aggressor, are laughable. It speaks of the need to ‘rescue’ Russian-speaking peoples of Ukraine, who are being ‘oppressed’. It speaks of needing to ‘de-Nazify’ the country, bizarrely omitting the fact that the Ukrainian president is himself a Jew.
The one genuine issue they have raised, which was the grouse they started off with, and which could provide the way back to peaceful negotiation, ultimately, is that Russia is dead set against the prospect of Ukraine providing a toehold for a hostile NATO presence in its backyard. Despite Western propaganda, it is a perfectly legitimate position for Russia to take. Precedents abound, including President Kennedy’s reaction to the Cuban Missile crisis where he was ready to take America to nuclear war rather than allow the Soviet Union install missiles in ‘independent’ Cuba, and even the recent threats of attack issued against the Solomon Islands if they allowed China to set up a military base on their land.
Russia’s expectation at the beginning of the war, was apparently that its neighbour would collapse like a pack of cards once the guns began to boom. Ukraine has done no such thing. Rather, Russian conventional power has been demystified. Many of its Generals and other senior soldiers have been targeted and killed. It’s military tacticians have been shown up for their ineptitude.
Much of the credit for the resilience of the Ukrainian resistance and it’s people should go to Volodymyr Zelensky. He has been a one-man army, rallying his people, attacking, and defeating Vladimir Putin in all his areas of weakness – shattering the shibboleth of Russian invincibility, debunking the lies and disinformation that pass for government information in Russia. From his mobile hideaway somewhere in Kyiv, Zelensky has addressed the United Nations, the American Congress, the British Parliament, and even international sporting and entertainment gatherings. He wants to address the African Union.
The apparent success that has been achieved in denigrating the Russian aggressor all over the world almost suggests that Russia will soon capitulate. That itself seems to have altered Zelensky’s thinking. From an earlier position where he was ready to talk to Putin and look for compromise on the Russians’ real grievances, Zelensky is now talking exultantly of ‘defeating’ Russia. The Western news media are helping him by providing wall-wall coverage of distressing physical and human destruction of Ukraine, and they are speaking ominously of arraigning Russian soldiers and leaders before the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
However, it is important to note that all the great public relations achievements that are the Zelensky Effect fail to take cognizance of realpolitik, and may be leading the world farther and farther away from a quick solution to the conflict. No matter how atrociously Russian soldiers behave in their despicable effort to bomb Ukrainian cities back into the dark ages, Russian soldiers will not face the court in The Hague, for the simple reason that Russia, like USA, does not recognize the authority of the ICC on its citizens, whether civilians or soldiers. The only scenario in which Putin and his men could be put on trial, apart from the limited possibility of a coup d’etat in Russia itself, is if Russia is defeated in a full-scale war, including nuclear war. Unfortunately, in such a post-apocalyptic scenario, neither ‘victor’ not ‘loser’ will be in any fit state to face any court, assuming there are any courts standing on the European mainland.
Thr truth is that, while Russia may not defeat Ukraine, Ukraine will not defeat Russia either. The unrealistic expectation of ‘victory’ must stop being sold to the naive public in coverage and commentary that are effectively propaganda on BBC and CNN and other news media. It is important to mitigate the Zelensky Effect with a strong dose of reality.
The first tentative move in the direction of this Realism was made recently by the visit of the Secretary General of the UN to Moscow to speak with Putin. People like Narendra Modi of India, Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey who have stood aside from the conflict and have contacts with both sides urgently need to be recruited to begin the tedious process of mediation and de-escalation.
To be dazzled by the Zelensky Effect into thinking there is another way to peace for his long-suffering people is to become part of a fond, widely held delusion, but a delusion all the same.