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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is A Foreign Policy Lightweight

I can vividly remember when I was seven years old visiting the outdoor Hershey Park Zoo during a balmy, cloudless sunny July afternoon in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Today the zoo is called ZooAmerica [sic]. It was the one place in Hershey where the faint aromatic smell of milk chocolate, which usually permeated the entire town, seemed to vanish for obvious reasons. I can still vividly remember walking in the center of the semi-crowded pedestrian asphalt walkway staying close to my father about fifteen feet away from the animals’ cages.

Most of the animals did not scare me, and their malodorous scent occasionally permeated the air. The giraffes and monkeys fascinated me. Many animals were asleep, appeared somewhat lethargic or were taking a long siesta after lunch oblivious to the human crowd and 88-degree heat such as the large tawny-colored lion with a bushy light-brown mane sleeping serenely on his side.

However, one animal did scare me. I especially remember making accidental eye contact with an orange-and-black striped adult tiger (or tigress) lying in a prone position with his slightly tilted upright head in the middle of his leafy tree-shaded cage. His alert large amber eyes were almost hypnotic, but extremely menacing. His aggressive stare was almost evil as I silently walked by with my father.

I was amazed that the tiger truly looked like the pictures in my first-grade science textbook. His striped colors were both beautiful and scary, and for a few microseconds I truly felt mortal fear. I had absolutely no desire for a closer “better look” or “feed the animals” moment, which was strictly prohibited. The tiger looked like he could literally tear me apart with his jaws and claws in a millisecond. However, I soon quickly turned my head, and just kept walking with my father thanking God for cages with thick iron bars.

Since February 24 Ukraine’s “head” has been in the mouth of a “tiger,” a hungry Russian Far East Amur tiger or Putin’s predatory Russia. It appears highly unlikely that Ukraine will be able to reason any time soon with Moscow (Putingrad) or negotiate a ceasefire. That is because President Volodymyr Zelensky has been a foreign policy lightweight since taking office on May 20, 2019. This is in stark contrast to his recent image in The Washington Post as a media darling, which has described him as a “consummate politician” and “proud Everyman.” The Los Angeles Times has compared him to George Washington. CNN has praised his “magnetism and skill at orating” while CBS News views him as the Winston Churchill of eastern Europe (in an army green T-shirt), “Captain Ukraine” or – drumroll, please – a Lincolnesque “man of the people.” Fox News is not much better.

Olga Rudenko, the editor in chief of the online The Kyiv Independent, aptly wrote on February 21 in The New York Times that Zelensky, who has been a “comedian for most of his life, is in over his head.” She scathingly described his presidential leadership since May 20, 2019 as “dispiritingly mediocre.” She wrote that “Zelensky is notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to criticism and challenging questions,” and “is visibly irritated by traditional journalists.”

She also wrote that he values loyalty over qualifications, is “surrounded by yes men [sic],” and completely failed to reduce corruption as he promised during his election campaign with Ukraine still remaining “the third-most-corrupt country in Europe after Russia and Azerbaijan” according to Transparency International. Last December Andrew Kramer of The New York Times stated that Zelensky has appointed comedians from his own “comedy studio” to high ranking positions within the Ukrainian government, who did not have “any experience in diplomacy or warfare” including the “head of the domestic intelligence agency” for Ukraine.

I offer a different perspective to both Rudenko’s and Kramer’s perceptive critiques. However, I would like to applaud Zelensky for his courage in staying in Kyiv. Despite being “target number one” on Putin’s kill list, when the U.S. asked him on February 25 if he wanted to be evacuated, he bravely replied, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” His courage is in stark contrast to the unheroic Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who abandoned Kabul last August before the Taliban even entered the city.

The trilingual Zelensky, who is a persuasive orator, also has been extremely savvy at using social media (Zoom, Twitter, selfies, etc.) and gaining worldwide sympathy unlike Putin, who is only winning the “propaganda and censorship” war in Russia and China. Today the Ukrainian president may be the most popular national leader in the western world, if not the entire world.  However, it should be noted that the initial Russian invasion and occupation of the Crimea along with much of the Donbas (Luhansk and Donetsk provinces) in February 2014 did not occur when Zelensky was president. However, the February 2022 invasion did occur during his administration.

My criticism of Zelensky is fourfold, especially his disregard for geopolitics, lack of common sense and repeated requests during the last four weeks for both a no-fly zone and the transfer of Polish MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. In my opinion, calling this former actor and comedian a successful politician or statesman is presently premature, wishful thinking, and overstated because he has been neither a Schwarzenegger nor a Reagan and certainly not a Churchill. Time will tell.

First, my primary criticism of Zelensky is that he never learned the most basic rule of geopolitics. A country can never fully escape its geography and history for either good or bad. This is especially true of Ukraine. Russia’s closest ally, landlocked Belarus, is located to the northwest along a lowland 674-mile border while Russia is located to the northeast, east and south (Crimea) along a difficult-to-defend 1,426-mile border. The Russian border, which resembles the Illinois prairie in elevation and is almost as flat as a pancake or blin, has no major natural barriers east of the Dnieper River such as the Carpathian Mountains in far southwestern Ukraine.

The flat eastern steppe facilitated the Mongols’ destruction of Kyiv in 1240 and its later domination by Muscovy, Poland, Lithuania, Saint Petersburg and Moscow for the next seven centuries. Unfortunately, after Brussels approved Ukraine joining NATO at the Bucharest Summit on April 4, 2008, the Ukrainian-Russian border gradually became the direct opposite of the amicable U.S.-Canadian border.

Ukraine’s vulnerable geography has been almost as tragic as its history, which would be common knowledge to any Ukrainian fifth grader. Tsarist Russia ruled Ukraine from approximately 1686 until 1917, and it remained part of Soviet Russia or the USSR from 1922 until 1992. During the Holodomor of 1932-33 Joseph Stalin allowed four million Ukrainians to die from famine as “enemies of the people” while the Red Army confiscated their food, grain, clothing, shoes, equipment and livestock while forcibly collectivizing their farms. Zelensky has failed to understand that Ukraine’s history, which has spanned more than a millennium, has been closely intertwined with Russia since the Kyivan Rus in 882 and Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’ from circa 1686 until January 6, 2019.

In many ways Ukraine’s “fraternal” relationship to Russia has been similar to the ancient Roman myth of Romulus (Russia) and Remus (Ukraine) except that “Romulus” never killed his twin brother. However, “Romulus” at times has been extremely condescending and cruel to “Remus” for centuries.

Since February 20, 2014 Russia has illegally occupied both Crimea and much of the Donbas. The likelihood of having these three Russophone territories voluntarily returned to Ukraine before 2030 is almost nil. Forget it unless there is a regime change in Moscow. Ukraine has a military, which is one tenth the size of Russia, and has no military allies; it also has neither nuclear weapons (Budapest Memorandum) nor much of an air force or navy.

Putin’s invasion is now in its fourth week. Unlike Churchill, who clearly saw the Nazi menace to Europe as a member of Parliament in the mid-1930s before Hitler attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, Zelensky made one major miscalculation after May 2019 before Putin’s second invasion of Ukraine on February 24. He should have unilaterally declared Ukraine a neutral country instead of gambling with his nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity not to mention both the inevitable and predictable military and civilian deaths, human suffering and immense property damage.

Right now Zelensky unbelievably still prefers Ukraine to be a NATO country, which would be a complete non-starter in any diplomatic negotiations with Russia for the indefinite future. Unfortunately, he lacks both a realistic understanding of geopolitics and Russia’s potentially destructive military might. I rest my case Mr. Comedian (objectionable content: trigger warning).

Second, although Zelensky has both a university and law degree, he has displayed little common sense and street smarts especially in regard to realpolitik since taking office on May 20, 2019. Ukraine joining NATO has always been a naïve and foolish pipedream. It was in 2008, and it is now in 2022. Plus, Germany and France were always against his country joining NATO, which is now comprised of thirty countries. Russia also does not want a Slavic NATO country on its borders for many different reasons. One primary reason includes Russia’s long history of devastating western invasions from the Teutonic Knights, Swedes, Poles, Ottoman Turks (twice), French (twice), British (twice) and Germans (twice) since 1242.

I further suspect that Putin may truly not want a democratic western-allied Ukraine on his border because it could directly threaten his own and other oligarchs’ autocratic corrupt rule. This could definitely interfere with Putin’s “anointing” of a successor in order to receive “immunity from prosecution,” which the Duma would rubberstamp before his long-awaited “retirement” sometime in the 2030s as an octogenarian. The assassination of Boris Nemtsov in 2015 and the poisoning of both Vladimir Kara-Murza in 2017 and Alexei Navalny in 2020 are prime examples of his fear and abhorrence of democracy. Putin simply and suspiciously views Ukraine as a potential political poison or “contagion.” However, in my opinion what Putin really fears is a coup d’état and being unmercifully executed like Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi on October 20, 2011.

I think that declaring Ukraine a neutral country like Switzerland, Austria, Serbia, Sweden or Finland, take your pick, probably would have prevented or mitigated a second invasion of Ukraine. This is highly plausible unless Russia wants to reestablish a Tsarist or Soviet empire, which is rather doubtful. However, what ultimately scares me about Russia today is that most Russians still greatly admire and venerate Joseph Stalin, the second worst mass murderer in human history after Mao, and Putin is not nearly as evil as these two monsters. Now that is something truly depressing to ponder.

Lastly, I call Zelensky a foreign policy lightweight because he has repeatedly asked NATO during the last four weeks for a “no-fly zone over Ukraine,” which is either the epitome of nationalistic selfishness or ignorance of NATO’s treaty obligations. I strongly suspect the former. If Russia were to shoot down a NATO fighter jet in a no-fly zone, NATO could invoke Article 5, and precipitate World War III. The same could easily be true if NATO shot down a Russian fighter jet. This is all a no-brainer.

Zelensky’s repeated requests during the last four weeks to transfer twenty-eight Polish MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine has also been just as problematic until Washington thankfully declared it “not tenable” on March 8 because they are potentially offensive weapons, which could attack the Russian Federation itself, and expand the war. These two reasons are why I agree with Olga Rudenko that Zelensky is “in over his head.”

The only “good” news about this war – now  that Zelensky’s naivety has fomented it –  is that both the Ukrainian military and civilians have been valiantly fighting the Russian “tiger” along with thousands of Putin’s Chechen and Syrian mercenaries. Unless there is an imminent cease fire, Russia may win this brutal fratricidal asymmetrical war, but it will never occupy or pacify all of Ukraine, especially the Carpathian Mountains. I doubt it because Ukraine is a country of 44,000,000 people, and almost the size of Texas. It is estimated that at least 450,000 Russian soldiers would be needed just to occupy Ukraine’s major cites if there is an insurgency.

Putin so far has underestimated Zelensky’s courage, Ukrainian resolve, NATO’s unity, Ukrainian (Turkish-made) drones, NATO’s military assistance, and most definitely the lethal accuracy of Ukrainian (U.S.-made) shoulder-fired Javelin and Stinger missiles against Putin’s tanks and aircraft, respectively.

Unfortunately, Russia may well win the war, but it will eventually lose the peace. Time will tell.

– Robert L. Maronic

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