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Zelensky Reminds Us What Politicians Are Good For

Even the best military needs the skill, savvy, and intuition of a statesman to achieve victory.
September 15, 2022
Zelensky Reminds Us What Politicians Are Good For
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attends flag hoisting ceremony in Izium after the Ukrainian forces took control of the city from the Russian forces in Kharkiv, Ukraine on September 14, 2022. (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The rapid success of Ukraine’s counteroffensive has caught almost everyone by surprise. Among the most surprised might be the Ukrainian military itself, which was reportedly against starting the counteroffensive too early and worried “that such a large-scale attack would incur immense casualties and fail to quickly retake large amounts of territory.” Senior officers thought that they needed more time and weapons, while President Volodymyr Zelensky wanted to start the operation before the end of the summer. He was right, and it’s a good reminder about what politicians—statesmen—are good for.

The Ukrainian military consists of excellent warriors, but war is more than fighting, it is also politicking. Zelensky has to consider the morale of his people, the state of his country’s economy both now and after the war, the state of Ukraine’s internal politics and the dangers from collaborators, and, crucially, Ukraine’s relationship with its partners and allies, each with its own aims, restrictions, capabilities, and internal politics. Reportedly, Zelensky wanted to begin the counteroffensive quickly to forestall the possibility of a Russian “referendum” in Kherson as a prelude to annexation. The leadership of the Ukrainian military worried that they lacked the manpower and supplies to match Zelensky’s timeline. Yet it’s almost a law of military affairs that every commander always wants more men, supplies, and time. It falls to the politician to consider the broader context, which Zelensky did, and he was right.

Zelensky, not the Ukrainian military, is in charge of foreign policy. The world got to know the Ukrainian Churchill in the opening days of the Battle of Kyiv by his speeches and his refusal to abandon his country and his capital. Without his performance (I mean that not in a derogatory way; leadership is performance), would 50 countries have been willing to give Ukraine weapons and loans? Zelensky rightly understands that, to keep the weapons coming, he needs to deliver more fast. His recent speech declaring in simple, straightforward, easy-to-translate sentences that the Ukrainian future is without Russia’s “friendship and brotherhood” was aimed not just at Russians and Ukrainians, but at people and leaders around the world.

Zelensky’s rhetoric is one of Ukraine’s greatest assets in the war, but he knows it’s more effective when coupled with battlefield successes. Free nations have given Ukraine a lot—though not enough. The Ukrainian military is right to ask for more, but Zelensky needed to demonstrate a return on investment to convince Ukraine’s arms suppliers to keep sending weapons and ammunition. This is a political judgment, not a military one, and it takes a good politician to combine the military, political, economic, and psychological aspects of the war into a coherent picture.

By the time the counteroffensive in Kharkiv began, the world’s attention had moved on from Ukraine. The last few weeks the search of Mar-A-Lago, a raft of primaries, Joe Biden’s speech about democracy, ongoing (and failing) nuclear negotiations with Iran, Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and its aftermath, Liz Truss’s ascension in the United Kingdom, and the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who came to the public eye during the previous European war and left it as peace left Europe. Zelensky knew that a quick battlefield success would be key to maintaining international backing, reminding the world that the war is not over and ending the chatter about a stalemate as an acceptable outcome.

Domestic politics are also a consideration, of course. Ukrainians overwhelmingly support their president and the war because the war has been going well for them. But Zelensky surely remembers his sinking popularity before February 24 as he tries to become the first Ukrainian president of the 21st century—and just the second since its independence—to win reelection. From Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill, successful wartime statesmen have balanced domestic politics and military realities against each other. The Ukrainian president is no different.

In a profile of Zelensky in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg portray a man with intuitive intelligence about politics and people. Applebaum has observed that the same political genius that made him a successful satirist now makes him a successful commander in chief.

Among academic historians, the “great man” theory of history is in disfavor—perhaps because there hasn’t been a great man for some time. But watching a comedian become a world-historical figure, it’s hard to discount the contingency of history on the decisions made by those clothed in power and responsibility.

Peter Feaver has said that the politician has “the right to be wrong” by the virtue of his office. But, to borrow from Trotsky, Comrade Putin abuses the privilege. What should we make of Vladimir Putin’s mistakes and misfortunes as a political leader at war?

Putin is a tyrant, feared by his subordinates, many of whom hold him in abeyant contempt. Two decades of undisputed rule has left him out of sync with the world and his own people. By contrast, Zelensky has been subject to criticism and accountability, and has had to make his cases to his people and foreign allies. This is what Matt Kroenig calls “the democratic advantage.” He might have been an evil genius once, but decades of unaccountability have made him stupid.

Heroes don’t exist in a vacuum. They are defined in contradistinction to villains, and in defense of good against evil. Zelensky and Putin define each other this way. Lincoln defeated Jefferson Davis, slavery, and treason. Georges Clemenceau stood up to the nationalist imperialisms of the Kaiser and the Ottoman Sultans. Churchill defeated Adolf Hitler and Nazism. A series of American presidents, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan (though not all between) stared down Soviet Communism. Now, Zelensky is breaking the back of Russia’s chauvinist imperialism.

War is fought by combatants but won by politicians. Make no mistake: Ukrainians are fighting this war, but Zelensky is winning it. We owe it to luck that an extraordinary man leads Ukraine in the age of political mediocrity. Very few would have believed that the celebrity with a boyish face would turn out to be a righteous man—much less a politician skillful and far-sighted enough to thrash Putin.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.