Tough Talk Abroad Proves a Hit at Home for Ukraine’s Zelensky
Канцлер Германии Ангела Меркель и президент Украины Владимир Зеленский на совместной пресс-конференции в Мариинском дворце. Фото: EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO/POOL/ТАСС
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It’s unlikely that Zelensky seriously believed that his sharp rhetoric with Merkel and Biden would lead to the West accepting Ukraine into NATO or canceling Nord Stream 2. But his behavior strikes a chord with the public at home.
It’s been a difficult summer for Ukrainian foreign policy. It began with the Geneva summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden, and continued with the deal between the United States and Germany on completing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, creating a bleak backdrop for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s meetings with his chief allies: a final meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and a first meeting with Biden.
It was clear long before the meeting took place that Merkel’s final visit to Kyiv would not be easy for either side. The agreement between Germany and the United States to finish the construction of Nord Stream 2 was an extremely bitter pill for Ukraine to swallow, since the pipeline will bypass Ukraine, jeopardizing its position as a gas transit hub. The specter of a secret agreement among the great powers has always haunted the Ukrainian elite, who cannot help but recall previous partitionings of the country. Not so long ago, Merkel was one of the most popular politicians among Ukrainians, with a 60 percent
approval rating, according to the New Europe research center. Now she has been dubbed “Frau Ribbentrop” on social media in Ukraine, where she is suspected of being prepared to sell off Ukraine to the Kremlin in exchange for Russian gas.
Understanding that he stood no chance of defying people’s low expectations of the meeting, Zelensky staked everything on ramping up the rhetoric. He called Nord Stream 2 “Moscow’s geopolitical weapon” and said it posed a threat to the whole of Europe, while Merkel’s shuttle diplomacy (she met with Putin shortly before visiting Kyiv) was “an attempt to keep a foot in two increasingly distant camps.” During the talks, the Ukrainian president demanded that Germany guarantee the continuation of gas transit through Ukraine, and sanction Nord Stream 2 if Russia starts to behave aggressively.
Zelensky’s demands weren’t limited to the gas pipeline. He also emphasized the military assistance that Ukraine expects from Germany, though again, he could not possibly fail to understand that for Merkel, even raising the issue of supplying arms to one side of a conflict on the territory of the former Soviet Union was inappropriate.
The talks ended on an even more unpleasant note. Merkel did not stay in Kyiv to take part in the Crimean Platform summit, an international initiative that is important to Zelensky. The summit began the day after the chancellor’s departure, but Germany was represented at it by the country’s energy minister.
The outcome of the summit was of little consolation for Ukraine. Despite its support for Ukraine’s position on Crimea and the war-torn Donbas region, Germany has no intention of ending either Russian gas supplies or its dialogue with Moscow. Given the situation, Zelensky could do little except repeat Kyiv’s complaints even louder, to demonstrate to the Ukrainian public that he shares their concern and disappointment.
The Ukrainian president also compiled a list of demands ahead of his first meeting with Biden. In interviews with Western media, Zelensky made constant references to the Russian military threat and the need to promptly accept Ukraine into NATO.
The Ukrainian president’s new rhetoric conclusively precludes any chance for dialogue with Russia on the Donbas, and draws a line under his campaign promise to bring peace to the region. But Zelensky has become disillusioned by his original pacifist platform, and has switched tracks to embracing statism and national patriotism, consolidated by striving to join the EU and NATO: an ambition that was enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution back under his predecessor Petro Poroshenko.
Zelensky’s visit to the United States took place amid even greater tension than his meeting with Merkel in Kyiv. Washington was preoccupied with the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan; the meeting with Biden was repeatedly rescheduled; and the itinerary for the visit was still being drawn up after Zelensky had arrived. The White House was sending a clear message to Kyiv that it should not overestimate the importance of the Ukrainian agenda for the new U.S. leadership. Nonetheless, Zelensky refused to give up, saying on the eve of his meeting with the U.S. leader that he would like to discuss Ukraine’s chances of joining NATO and a timeframe for doing so.
Unsurprisingly, there was no miraculous breakthrough when Zelensky finally did meet with Biden: no rolling back of Nord Stream 2 or admittance to NATO. The ensuing communique was vague. While expressing support for all of Ukraine’s demands, from joining NATO to restoring its territorial integrity, the American side made no concrete promises, nor offered any timelines.
Zelensky didn’t leave completely empty-handed, of course: Ukraine will get another tranche of U.S. aid for enacting reforms, and another $60 million for modernizing its armed forces. Additional agreements were made on security and on developing Ukrainian energy. Overall, Ukrainian-U.S. relations are returning to normal following the extortion of the Donald Trump years.
Yet the heightened expectations and hype whipped up by Zelensky’s team ahead of the meeting meant that at home, many Ukrainians saw the visit as little more than a failure. The criticism came from both sides: the national patriots and the pro-Russian camp.
At the end of this fraught summer for Ukrainian foreign policy, there isn’t much good news. More recent crises like the global pandemic and Afghanistan have definitively pushed Ukraine down the agenda. Western leaders, meanwhile, are not prepared to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of Ukraine’s. Kyiv is guaranteed the existing line of support, along with recognition that it is in the right in its conflict with Russia in Crimea and Donbas, but no more.
That isn’t a satisfactory state of affairs for either the Ukrainian public, which takes the West’s support for granted at this point, or the young president, who would like to have his say on the world’s stage. But since Ukraine has few opportunities to seriously influence the formulation of global politics, all Zelensky can do is turn up the volume.
Zelensky is the first Ukrainian president to adopt such a sharp tone in his dealings with the country’s Western partners. He is constantly making demands, expressing indignation, and shamelessly raising expectations of international meetings. Sometimes this works against him by creating the impression of failure where in fact there was none. But from time to time, it works in his favor—especially at home, where he is already paving the way to run for a second term.
It’s unlikely that he seriously believed that his public demands of Merkel and Biden would usher Ukraine directly into NATO or force them to end any dialogue with Russia. But his behavior strikes a chord with the public at home. Most Ukrainians are firmly convinced that the West owes them: as victims of Russian aggression, as the first line of defense of the free world, as a young, developing democracy. And even if doors are slammed in the face of the inexperienced president in Western corridors of power, Ukrainian public opinion remains on his side, because he is not afraid to publicly say what many Ukrainians are thinking. For this reason, even Zelensky’s most modest foreign policy successes won’t leave him without support back home.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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