Ukraine under closer western scrutiny


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Welcome back. A question for readers: have you noticed, over the past two months or so, a certain change of focus in the reporting and commentary in western countries on Ukraine? I have — and you can email me your thoughts at [email protected].

For most of the two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, the emphasis was on Ukraine’s heroic self-defence, the impressive leadership qualities of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the paramount need for western governments to maintain military and financial support for the Ukrainian struggle against its revanchist enemy.

This began to change towards the end of 2023, as it became clear that Ukraine’s counteroffensive had failed to achieve a breakthrough, and that US and European backing for Kyiv’s war effort was mired in political difficulties.

On Thursday, the EU overcame Hungarian objections and approved a €50bn aid package for Ukraine — a decision that received the western media’s full attention. Still, such coverage doesn’t detract from the impression that there is nowadays more reporting and analysis of domestic political tensions in Ukraine, corruption and problems in areas such as recruitment for the armed forces.

Neither the Biden administration nor most European governments are talking in public about applying pressure, mild or otherwise, on Ukraine to end the war. Overwhelmingly, western support for Ukraine’s long-term independence and alignment with the democratic world remains firm. Suspicion and dislike of President Vladimir Putin and his autocratic, neo-imperialist Russia run high.

However, it seems to me that the shift in western news coverage and commentary reflects an emerging impulse among some policymakers and opinion-formers to question for how long, and under what conditions, western support should continue for Ukraine’s war effort.

Zelenskyy and Zaluzhny

This week brought a good illustration of the switch in focus to Ukraine’s domestic scene. It has been an open secret since late last year that not all is smooth in the relationship between Zelenskyy, the civilian head of state, and Valeriy Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces.

Now, as the FT’s Christopher Miller reports from Kyiv, it appears that Zelenskyy may have decided to remove Zaluzhny from his post.

Commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces Valeriy Zaluzhny. For months, there have been reports of tension between him and the country’s president © AP

To be clear, the historical record shows that it is perfectly normal and sometimes useful to change military leaders — and even political leaders — during a war. To cite one example, the UK and France paved the way to victory in the first world war by replacing the prime ministers and military commanders under whom they had entered the fighting in 1914.

However, Mark Galeotti, a prominent western commentator on the Russian-Ukrainian war, was not alone this week in suggesting, in a piece for The Spectator magazine, that “Zelenskyy’s rivalry with Zaluzhny spells bad news for Ukraine”.

One reason is that Zaluzhny is more popular than Zelenskyy with the Ukrainian public. In the survey below, published by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, we see that trust in Zelenskyy dropped to 62 per cent last December from 84 per cent in December 2022.

By contrast, 88 per cent of Ukrainians expressed trust in Zaluzhny (there are no comparable data for a year earlier).

Bar chart of % of respondents who trust each figure  showing Ukrainians' trust in Zelenskyy has decreased

As Gwendolyn Sasse points out for the Carnegie Europe think-tank, the decline in support for Zelenskyy isn’t alarming. His ratings are still high, and in a long war it’s only natural that the “rally round the flag” effect should wane over time.

However, she adds: “Society simply expects Zelenskyy and Zaluzhny to co-operate.”

A return of oligarchy?

In my view, the Zelenskyy-Zaluzhny dispute is important not only in itself, but because it relates to the way that some western specialists are starting to question the president’s leadership in terms of the quality of democracy and governance in Ukraine.

In this article for Business Insider, published in December, Paul Starobin, an author with long experience of Russia and Ukraine, took a look at Andriy Yermak. As head of Zelenskyy’s presidential office, Yermak is widely regarded as the second most powerful civilian figure in Ukraine.

Starobin quotes Daria Kaleniuk, a respected anti-corruption campaigner, as saying that Russia’s invasion “largely destroyed the generation of oligarchs who had enjoyed free rein to plunder Ukraine’s economy since the country freed itself from the Soviet Union in 1991”.

According to Kaleniuk, however, Yermak is “intoxicated with power” and may be creating a new system of oligarchy, over which he presides. Starobin writes:

By her account, Yermak, through his deputies in the Office of the President and cabinet advisers at his beck and call, is manoeuvring to exert control over a large swath of Ukraine’s economy, as well as its law enforcement and security apparatus …

What she was describing, in effect, is the formation of an accidental oligarchy, under the cover of martial law invoked by the Zelenskyy government.

Perhaps this argument is overstated. But the risk of a new oligarchy may be rising under the extreme pressures of wartime economic management. As Luke Cooper writes in this perceptive analysis of Ukraine’s economy for Social Europe, “Kyiv is now overseeing the most far-reaching expansion of the state’s economic role since independence”.

Corruption: progress and setbacks

Alongside western interest in political and business power struggles in Ukraine, attention is turning once again to corruption.

In its 2023 corruption perceptions index, released this week, the watchdog Transparency International placed Ukraine 104th equal, next to Algeria, Brazil and Serbia and up from 116th equal in 2022. (In TI’s 180-country list, Russia was 141st equal this year.)

TI’s index uses surveys from experts and business leaders to rank countries by the perceived level of corruption in their public sectors.

Ukraine’s latest score shows that the fight against corruption is making some progress. As TI’s Ukrainian branch highlights, anti-corruption agencies in Kyiv started 101 criminal proceedings last year against 257 persons, and a special court for such cases passed 65 sentences.

However, new examples of corruption keep cropping up. Last month, Ukraine’s security service said it had uncovered a $40mn fraud scheme in weapons procurement.

Freedom and democracy

Corruption isn’t the only issue unsettling Ukraine’s western friends. Another is political and media freedom.

Writing for the US Council on Foreign Relations last month, Thomas Graham discussed the problem that, under martial law, parliamentary elections due last autumn were postponed and a presidential contest scheduled for this year is likely to suffer the same fate. Graham observes:

 . . . the longer the country goes without elections — which could be quite some time given that the war is currently at an impasse — the more questions about Ukraine’s commitment to democracy will mount, in both Ukraine and the west.

 . . . the risk is that the suspension of elections becomes self-perpetuating, with Zelenskyy or future leaders pointing to a continuing massive Russian threat to justify their actions.

As far as concerns media freedom, curtailed since Russia’s full-scale invasion, Christopher Miller (once again) reported last month on a series of mysterious “attacks and smear campaigns targeting prominent Ukrainian journalists”. In the eyes of some Ukrainians, these incidents have cast a shadow over Zelenskyy’s record on protecting freedom of expression.

Rethinking the nature of victory

I wish to restate that the intensified western scrutiny of conditions in Ukraine doesn’t imply an imminent danger of collapse in support for Kyiv. Indeed, this week’s EU decision suggests the opposite — though, in the US, questions linger over Republican party backing for Ukraine, as outlined in this analysis by Mateusz Piotrowski for the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

Undoubtedly, western policymakers and commentators are aware that too strong a focus on Ukraine’s shortcomings risks playing into Russia’s hands, particularly the Kremlin’s relentless propaganda theme that Ukraine is an illegitimate state.

Even so, some analysts in the west are now airing the view that Ukraine and its western friends should redefine the meaning of “victory” in the war. In particular, should the liberation of all Ukrainian territory from Russian control be a precondition for the conflict’s end?

The most coherent commentary along these lines appeared this week on the European Leadership Network site. It was written by Karsten Friis of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, who said:

Ukraine must . . . define its victory on its own terms, in a way which Russia cannot prevent. This definition of victory should be decoupled from territorial demarcation lines . . . It can be achieved in steps or dimensions, such as a vibrant democracy, a growing economy, societal welfare, as well as territorial liberation.

At present, neither Ukraine’s leaders nor their western backers seem ready to take this leap. But it wouldn’t surprise me if discussion of such ideas advanced in the course of 2024.

More on this topic

How Ukraine fights Russian disinformation: beehive vs mammoth — a study by Jakub Kalenský and Roman Osadchuk for the Helsinki-based European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats

Tony’s picks of the week

  • Brazil’s imports of Russian diesel and fuel oil soared last year, giving the Russian economy a multibillion-dollar boost as the war in Ukraine enters its third year, the FT’s Bryan Harris reports from São Paulo

  • Distracted by geopolitical tensions and lulled by the easing of Covid-19 death rates, world leaders are asleep at the wheel in terms of preparing for future pandemics, Monica de Bolle and Maurice Obstfeld write for the Peterson Institute for International Economics

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