The Importance of Perceptions: President Zelensky in Europe

At the end of his intervention at the EU extraordinary session of parliament, the emotion of president Zelensky was that of a man who had put all his strength in the battle to obtain more European support and to pass on the desperation and the determination of his people.  He had to go through terrific tension to cope with a schedule reflecting a mixture of improvisation and petty national  – or even personal – self-interests. He was of course ready to seize the “permanent” invitation to visit Brussels by Charles Michel, the president of the Council, keen to take the light out of the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the end of the EU-Ukraine summit in Kiev on 2-3 February. It was politically astute for Zelensky to visit Brussels, for his second adventure abroad since the invasion, bearing in mind that his December visit to Washington has been bitter to swallow in Brussels, the main provider of assistance to Ukraine.

Controlled improvisation

The decision to flight to Brussels, less than a week after the much-hipped EU-Ukraine summit, was due to stay secret for obvious security reasons. He would address the European parliament, meet the 2 other centres of power (Commission and Council) and then discuss, in small groups, not at bilateral level, with representatives of the 27 member states. The leak, from parliament circles, raised questions about an eventual cancellation. Finally, in a couple of hours, the surprise, short, visit was transformed into a tour of 2 days, full of political traps. London wanted to remember the importance of its support, at national and not at EU level. If Zelensky was going to London, then president Macron wanted to have him in Paris. Then, he felt obliged to invite German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for a grand diner at the Elysée. But not the Italian prime minister Georgia Meloni, with whom he had already bad relations, who felt snubbed by Macron. She was not alone to dismiss Paris’ argument that Germany and France were signatories of the Minsk Agreement, and the story of the special Berlin-Paris special cooperation. This is how, finally, Zelensky arrived in Brussels in Macron’s plane.

Before to fly to Europe and plead for more funds, Zelensky had launch attacks against corruption as a signal he was taking transparency and reforms seriously. But the scope of the move was limited: there was another search in the house of tycoon, and former ally, Igor Kholomoïsky, accused for years of the same billions embezzlement; the sacking of a few officials in the judicial, and a deputy head of Zelensky’s party Servant of the people, for corruption of justice; the dismissal of a deputy minister accused of responsibility for the helicopter crash that killed interior minister on 18 January. But, more spectacularly, Zelensky accepted the resignation of Defence Minister Olexi Reznikov following the uncovering of corruption in the armed forces. It was a good signal in direction of poorly fed ordinary soldiers, and the population helping to feed the front despite their difficult conditions. But the sum is modest ($300.000); war profiteering is the rule more than the exception during armed conflicts; and it is a purely internal affair (food bought at extorted prices by the Ukrainian army to Ukrainian businessmen), nothing involving Western funds.

The conduct of the war

This sudden outburst to fight corruption was different of previous ones, which were used since 1992 to discredit business rivals or political opponents. But, in February 2023, Ukraine is a country at war, Zelensky has been obliged to speak of “difficulties” on the front, and everyone (but the Russians) is announcing a Russian offensive by late February. Officially, the sideling of Reznikov was a simple change dictated by the war.  But it was an open secret that the Defence Minister, named in November, had difficult relations with general Valeri Zaluzhny, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine since July 2021. The rivalry between the two men was personal, but also professional and political as their views about the military campaign diverged with time – both men competing to get the ear of the president. Zaluzhny has launched a very skilled PR operation on his site, attracting attention of the Western media to the “Iron general”, the man who had orchestrated the military reforms that allowed Ukraine to fend off the Russian invasion. And the man who, inheriting $1 million from a Ukrainian-American soft power developer, donated it all straight to the army. Zelensky felt vulnerable, confronted with a prolonged war and more or less open accusations that he was mistaken to ignore Washington prediction about an imminent Russian attack a year ago. Reznikov was used as the fall guy, now minister of Strategic Industries, away of the military campaign, but dealing with a lot of money and involved in discussions with the foreign investors. The new minister, Kirilo Budanov, was the head of the military intelligence, a new force alongside the armed forces and the SBU. It is spreading more or less credible information almost daily, including that Putin is replaced by clones. He also has good channels with Western intelligence agencies.

The West continues to says that it will support Ukraine as long as it takes. But the war drags on and the international context is more complex. The U.S. is shooting Chinese spy balloons and an earthquake at the Turkish-Syrian border risks to destabilise all the Middle East. Lately, American media have been fed with “leaks” about Washington worries that the Ukrainian armed forces are overusing ammunitions and weaponry, behind sustainability. Political promises are one thing, industrial capacities are another. Then there is the growing anxiousness about the use that Kiev might do of the modern equipment promised to President Zelensky. Promises to the EU Commission that the new deliveries will not be used against Russian territory are just that – promises. Of course, some Western hard liners are dreaming that, with material help and good training, Ukrainian forces will reduce the ‘enemy army’ to ashes. But it can hardly be a hazard that, when Zelensky was in Brussels, the NATO general secretary was in Washington. He has declared more than once that Nato was not at war with Russia. All that send the message that, indeed, the West is ready to back Ukrainian military, including with sophisticated equipment, but that they wish to keep a better control of their use and even have a say on the larger question of the conduct of the war.

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