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Zelensky on ‘political tightrope’ over Russia’s compromises on Donbass and Crimea

Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression has proven to be key in driving Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces away, but that same national fervor puts Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a tight spot when it comes to compromises that could end the war. war.

Russia has suffered massive casualties in the war against Ukraine and made surprisingly little progress in the five weeks since Putin launched the attack. After failing to quickly crush Ukrainian forces, Russia withdrew some of its demands, but Zelensky will have to work hard to convince the Ukrainians that ceding anything to Russia is the right move.

“Zelensky has impressed his country as a wartime leader, but it will be a political problem if he tries to sell a deal that is not so good,” Daniel Fried, the former assistant secretary of state for Europe which is now at the Atlantic Council, says.

A national hero who has been admired around the world, Zelensky has worked tirelessly to motivate Ukrainians to keep up the fight against Russia. He called the war a battle for world freedom and rallied people around the message that Ukrainians are standing up to Russia despite their outsider status.

At this point, Fried said, the Ukrainians realize they have a chance to win “by not losing” and that their immense sacrifices have meant something. With this mentality, he wondered, “what are the Ukrainians going to want to give up?”

It’s a question Ukrainian MP Inna Sovsun also posed on Twitter. On Monday, she acknowledged that the Donbass region and Crimea were on the negotiating table and that some might see it as a small concession to achieve peace. However, she asked people to think about which parts of their own country they would be willing to sacrifice if Putin started bombing their cities.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky must walk a “political tightrope” in compromising with Russia to end the war. Above, Zelensky addresses the Bundestag via live video from the besieged city of kyiv on March 17 in Berlin, Germany.
Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Images

Moving away from the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine that Russia used to justify the invasion, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu says Russia’s ‘main objective’ is the liberation of Donbass . But negotiating territory, a move that could be seen as an attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty, won’t be easy for Zelensky, said Michael Kimmage, a history professor at Catholic University and a member of the German Marshall Fund. . Newsweek.

It is possible that Zelensky could offer a compromise on parts of Donbass that were under Russian control before the current invasion. That might not be enough to satisfy Putin, however, and Russia will likely try to take full control of the region, which means sacrificing Mariupol, a key Ukrainian coastal city that has been ravaged by Russian troops.

“It would be very difficult for Zelensky to concede and his people would be very upset. It’s actually Russia winning part of the war and an almost intolerable outcome,” Kimmage said. “It’s completely a political tightrope.”

Walking a tightrope comes with higher stakes now than years ago, but it’s a balance Zelensky has had to strike since winning the presidency. In 2019, he campaigned as a candidate for peace in Donbass, a region plagued by conflict since 2014.

Achieving the peace promised by Zelensky as a candidate has been very difficult, and it is possible that Ukrainian valor, combined with Russian brutality in the war, will make fulfilling this campaign promise even more difficult.

Zelensky pledged to submit the compromises with Russia to a referendum so that the Ukrainian people can decide their future. Despite shielding Ukraine’s president from fallout, Yuri Zhakov, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, said the referendum is likely to fail unless there is a significant shift in public opinion . Russians probably know Ukrainians won’t vote for compromises, so, Zhakov said, Zelensky needs to convince Russians that Ukraine is serious about neutrality, while simultaneously advocating with its voters.

Zelensky’s most promising area of ​​compromise is giving up NATO membership prospects. He has already publicly acknowledged that Ukraine’s membership is unlikely and experts believe this is something the Ukrainian people could support. However, this compromise must be accompanied by important security guarantees, another obstacle that Zelensky will have to overcome.

Assuming Zelensky can lock in those security safeguards, Fried said the argument Zelensky could make to his people about trade-offs is that it’s a “bitter pill to swallow” but necessary for the good of the nation.


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