Professor Gennady Shkliarevsky


Last Tuesday Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky visited Washington to meet with President Biden and American legislators.  The visit came at a critical moment in the war between Russia and Ukraine.  The widely advertised counter-offensive pursued by the Ukrainian army in spring and summer is obviously failing to achieve its professed objectives.  Even Zelensky and his government acknowledge the fact.

As it is, the war has reached a stalemate that neither side is capable of breaking.  However, in this situation, Russia enjoys a substantial advantage over Ukraine.  Despite the assistance that Ukraine has received so far, Russia still has resources in personnel and equipment that are vastly superior to those of Ukraine.

Indeed, Russia has also sustained considerable casualties in this war.  According to the numbers recently revealed by the Pentagon, Russia has lost 315,000 troops from the original invading force of 360,000.  Ukrainian losses remain undetermined since the Ukrainian government chooses not to release the figures.  Several non-government estimates claim that Ukrainian casualties are closer to 500,000.  This number is a conjecture and comes from indirect evidence.

One piece of such evidence is widely circulated information that the government has made a decision to call up for service an additional 500,000 new recruits in the next few months.  While in Washington, Zelensky has also announced that his government has increased the draft age and will now recruit individuals older than 45 years of age (Zelensky has not mentioned what the upper limit of draft age is going to be).  Obviously, Ukrainian losses are high, and the fighting capacity of the Ukrainian army is under severe strain.

Constant squabbling and rivalries among the Ukrainian ruling elite compound the overall unfavorable situation in the country.  The persistent tensions between Zelensky and General Zaluzhny, Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian army, are perhaps the most notable illustration of instabilities in the government.  Criticisms of Zelensky and his government are on the rise.  As an experienced military commander, Zaluzhny is widely popular in Ukraine and is regarded by many as a possible replacement for Zelensky.

These circumstances and the continued standoff in Congress about the future of aid to Ukraine have created a sense of urgency about Zelensky’s visit.  His main objective was to drum up support in U.S. Congress, particularly among Republicans who now hold the strings to the purse, and help facilitate the approval of some $61.4 billion of additional funds for the war in Ukraine.  In pursuit of this agenda, that is also ardently supported by President Biden, Zelensky planned a series of high-profile meetings with both President Biden and American legislators on both sides of the aisle.

The arguments that Mr. Zelensky used to persuade his audiences were similar to the ones he had used on previous occasions.  Just as in the past, Zelensky emphasized the commonality of interests and values between Ukraine and the United States.  He persistently portrayed Ukraine as the easternmost stronghold of the West against authoritarian Russia.  He sang praise to the Ukrainian people, who, despite the enormous strain of almost 22 months of war, remained totally committed to defending their freedom.

According to Zelensky, Ukrainians have been and remain staunch allies of the West against Russian expansionism.  In his appeals for assistance, Zelensky emphasized that more aid to Ukraine would save more lives of ordinary Ukrainians.  With or without Western assistance, Zelensky reiterated, the nation was determined to continue the war until all Ukrainian lands under Russian control are liberated.  All these exhortations were old stuff.

Perhaps the only new point that Zelensky brought up was his speculation—perhaps even meant as a hidden threat—that without further military assistance the war was likely to degenerate into a more chaotic and disorderly guerrilla warfare right in the heart of Europe—a prospect that many in the West abhor.

Dramatic effects notwithstanding, Zelensky’s pleas have made little impression on Republican legislators who have remained largely unmoved in their determination to oppose the new aid package.  Many of them skeptically note that they see nothing new in what Zelensky has been saying during his visit.  While many Republicans express solidarity with the courageous fight of the Ukrainian people, they have also expressed their annoyance at Zelensky’s persistent tendency to “guilt-trip” his Western audiences and to lecture them.

These negative impressions of Zelensky, however, are not the main reason for the refusal to approve aid to Ukraine.  For one thing, many Republicans react to the all-too-obvious hypocrisy of Biden’s argument in support of new funding.  In making his pitch Biden insists that providing military assistance to Ukraine is in the interests of American security.  However, at the same time he doggedly refuses to address the illegal immigration crisis on the southern U.S. border that presents a much more immediate security threat than the developments half a world away from our borders.

Republicans also argue that neither Biden nor Zelensky–nor, for that matter, anyone else—have clearly enunciated the purpose that the new package of aid will serve.  Republican senator  J. D. Vance speaks for many of his colleagues when he expresses his doubts about the validity of the new request.  “So what we’re saying to the president and really to the entire world,” Vance have pointedly remarked, “is, you need to articulate what the ambition is. What is $61bn going to accomplish that $100bn hasn’t?”

Biden, Zelensky, and other advocates of the continued funding recognize that more money is unlikely to make any significant strategic impact on the course of the war.  As things stand today, the stalemate is likely to continue with no end in sight.  The only likely result of staying this course is new cycles of violence, which will only bolster the political standing of both Biden and Zelensky, but will bring more deaths and suffering for ordinary Ukrainians.

Although Zelensky does not acknowledge openly the futility of Ukrainian war efforts, his actions speak eloquently.  As has already been mentioned, he has announced a new wave of mobilization that will put 500,000 new recruits under arms and has also raised the age level for new draftees.  Obviously, these facts do not inspire much hope.

Zelensky’s insistence that aid is critical for saving Ukrainian lives is not particularly convincing.  Despite the aid that Ukraine has received so far, the number of casualties remains high and comparable to those sustained by the Russian side, if not higher.  It is unlikely that future deliveries will make much difference, particularly if Ukraine will embark of offensive operations that usually result severe losses.

If indeed Zelensky’s goal is to spare Ukrainian lives, the pursuit of this war is certainly not the way to achieve this goal.  Even the most ardent supporters in the West have doubts regarding Zelensky’s goals of defeating Russia and expelling all its forces from eastern Ukraine.  Even Zaluzhny, the Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief, has expressed serious doubts about the possibility of succeeding in goals enunciated by Zelensky.  In the current state of the war Western attempts to help Ukraine by providing more arms to carry on military operations are likely do more harm than good for ordinary Ukrainians.

Arguing in support of additional funding, Zelensky has repeatedly stated that Ukrainians are overwhelmingly in supportive of continuing the fight regardless of whether Ukraine receives additional aid or not.  That is the official line of Zelensky’s propaganda machine.  The reality appears to be different.  Private communications from ordinary Ukrainians portray a different reality.

They tell the story of forced mobilization that involves severe violations of the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.  Even the MSM in the West that usually try to offer a benign picture of the Ukrainian government have published several exposes about the repressive tactics that the government uses in order to fill the ranks.

Recruitment squads organized by the government (Ukrainians call them “people snatchers”) conduct regular raids in Ukrainian cities to round up those who appear to be eligible for service.   These days many Ukrainian males try to avoid venturing in the streets so as to escape these squads.

In a private letter a female correspondent from Ukraine describes the surreal experience she had when she visited a city market in a large Ukrainian city.  The visit took place on Sunday, which is the day of the week when most Ukrainians do their weekly shopping.  She reports seeing no males who apparently preferred to stay home rather than risk the encounter with squad of “people snatchers.”

A video from the city of Chernovtsy attached to this article shows one of the episodes in which members of a recruitment squad grab a man in the street and try to escort him to a recruitment station.  Ordinary people who witness this scene loudly protest and express their disapproval of the actions by government agents.  One elderly woman decides to intervene directly in the scuffle and engages the agents.  Her actions distract the agents, and the victim uses this distraction as an opportunity to escape.

There is no doubt that the war in Ukraine is at a dead end.  Zelensky and his clique insist on staying on the present path—the same path that has led to the current deadlock.  The distinct and striking feature of Zelensky’s approach, shared by Biden, is its singular lack of pragmatism and the obsessive idée fix that drives his approach.  As in the past, this path will lead only to more deaths, more suffering for the Ukrainian people, and more destruction of their land.  In its recent expose on the current state of the war The New York Times has called continued counteroffensive operations “a suicide mission.”

Contrary to what Zelensky wants us to believe, the current course is not the only one open to Ukraine.  The obvious failure of this course makes a strong case for trying a new and fresh approach.  The failure to secure funding for the war effort can and should be used as an opportunity to make changes that would pursue avoidance of unnecessary deaths and destruction.

This is not a call for surrender.  There are possibilities other that just the two spelled out by Zelensky:  either to continue the war or to give up sovereignty.  These are false choices that have led Ukraine into a dead end.  Getting out of this dead end requires pragmatism and new thinking.  As history shows, new possibilities and different solutions are never beyond human creative capacities.

One example that comes to mind is the Winter War of 1939-1940 in which tiny Finland defended its sovereignty against the mighty Soviet Union.  In that war Finns chose to give up some of their territories in exchange for peace.  Finland did not lose its sovereignty as a result of losses.  On the contrary, it was able to use peace for building a flourishing economy (the lucrative trade with the Soviet Union played an important part in achieving its prosperity) and vibrant democracy.  Giving up some territories and sharing the border with the Soviet Union did not deny Finland freedom and self-determination.

This is not to argue or even to suggest that Ukraine should follow the Finnish path.  The example of Finland merely illustrates that, contrary to what Mr. Zelensky wants us to believe, there are many ways of protecting sovereignty.  A creative, rational, and pragmatic approach may open new possibilities that will save lives, reduce destruction, and, what is even more important, lead Ukraine out of the impasse in which it finds itself today.


Gennady Shkliarevsky, who is Ukrainian by birth, is a Professor Emeritus of History, at Bard College.

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