Volodymyr Zelensky came into office thinking peace with Putin was possible. He now believes victory is the only answer.
By Paul Sonne and David L. Stern
February 22, 2023
The Washington Post
Not long after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, a year ago this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky found himself in a safe room beneath Kyiv’s government complex with the voice of the Belarusian president booming over the phone.
Alexander Lukashenko, one of the Kremlin’s key allies, was inviting a delegation of officials to Minsk to negotiate an end to the war that Russia had launched just three days earlier, according to Andriy Sybiha, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, who was in the room for the call.
Zelensky was incensed at the invitation to another negotiation — recalling talks over the conflict in Ukraine’s east, known as “Minsk 1” and “Minsk 2,” that took place in the Belarusian capital in 2014 and 2015 — in which Kyiv was forced to make concessions to the Kremlin under the threat of battlefield losses. “There will be no Minsk,” Zelensky said, according to Sybiha. “There will be no Minsk 3.”
Zelensky’s refusal to entertain another Minsk negotiation — despite Russian attack helicopters, fighter jets and tanks descending on Kyiv — showed how the Ukrainian leader was hardening in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat, a process that began many months before the invasion and accelerated as the war unfolded.
The comedian turned president refused offers to be spirited away to safety and emerged as a far fiercer foe than Moscow has expected, part of a broader transformation that has cemented his global reputation as a hard-bitten wartime leader. “Of course, we all have changed, including the president,” said Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian presidential office. “The ordeals that have marked his tenure — they can’t but change a person. Has he become harder? Of course, he has. Has he become stronger? From my point of view, he was always strong.”
In the past year, Zelensky has risen to global renown, fashioning himself as the brash conscience of Western democracies, as he pushes for more weapons to bolster Ukrainian forces. With the savvy of a professional entertainer, he has delivered hundreds of speeches presenting the war as a Manichaean struggle between democracy and autocracy, freedom and tyranny, fairness and injustice — and most recently, at last week’s Munich Security Conference, David and Goliath. In a distracted Western world, he has kept the Ukrainian cause alive.
All the while, Zelensky himself has changed, hardening into a more uncompromising leader strained by the exigencies of war. His positions, particularly on how to deal with Russia, have grown stauncher with every attack, mirroring a broader defiance toward Moscow that has welled up in Ukrainian society, even as millions of Ukrainians find themselves exhausted after nearly a year of total war.
Where Zelensky as a presidential candidate in 2019 held out Russia as a prospective partner with whom he could negotiate peace, he now regularly brands Russia a terrorist state that must be vanquished to save the West, completing a transformation that has made him arguably Putin’s most vocal and determined global opponent.
He derided Putin in an interview with Sky News last month. “Who is he now?” Zelensky asked. “After the full-scale invasion, for me he is nobody. Nobody.”
Zelensky’s transformation became particularly apparent in September, when he stood in front of Ukraine’s government complex in his army-green T-shirt and fleece — the same day Putin “annexed” four regions in eastern Ukraine — and closed the door to any possible discussions with the Russian leader.
Ukraine, Zelensky said, had tried through negotiations to find a peaceful coexistence with Russia “based on equal, honest, dignified and just terms.” “It is clear that with this Russian president, that is impossible,” Zelensky declared. “He doesn’t know what honesty and dignity are. Therefore, we are ready for a dialogue with Russia — but already with a different Russian president.”
Zelensky would later moderate his position under pressure from Washington, but the thrust of his message remained clear: The Ukrainian leader had reached a point of no return with Putin.
The metamorphosis into hardened wartime leader was complete.
Gone was the boyish, turtlenecked comedian who campaigned for Ukraine’s presidency in 2019 on idealistic promises to find a way to make peace with Russia. Gone, too, was the eager young president jumping through hoops in his first year in office to land a meeting with Putin in search of elusive common ground. Gone was the wartime leader of the early weeks who sent emissaries to talks in Belarus and Turkey in the hope that reason might prevail.
Experience and tragedy had washed over him. Cynicism battled with idealism inside him. He had seen the aftermath of atrocities and grasped the hands of the loved ones of Ukraine’s dead soldiers. He coldly fired a childhood friend who had served as his intelligence chief. His style of management toughened to fit the circumstances of war. So did his positions toward both Russia and the West.
David Arakhamia, the leader of Zelensky’s faction in parliament, said the Ukrainian leader had grown more cynical due to Russia’s perfidy but also after seeing “how the international community plays games.” “It often happens that they tell you, ‘We are for democracy’ and such and then do something with the Russians,” Arakhamia said. “I don’t want to name countries, but there are statistics. You can see who has what trade balance with them. It’s clear that is simply cynicism.”
Convinced there is no deal with Russia to be had, Zelensky now faces increasing pressure to sustain and extend Western support for a prolonged fight against Moscow that Kyiv is unable to win on its own. Both Ukraine and Russia are preparing new offensive operations ahead of a spring fighting season that could prove decisive in the trajectory of the war.
Zelensky, in the Sky News interview, warned that Ukraine was just a “first step” for Putin and that the Russian leader could “move further.” “They don’t want any talks, and this was the case before the invasion. President Putin decided so,” Zelensky said. “He doesn’t want negotiations because he doesn’t want peace.”
The comedian and the spy
Zelensky took power in 2019 brimming with youthful sincerity about building a new European Ukraine and espousing idealism about making peace with Russia — positions that helped him defeat his more nationalist, hard-line opponent, Petro Poroshenko, with a resounding 73 percent of the vote.
As an entertainer, Zelensky had long articulated pro-European views through his skits and characters and often imbued his jokes with a skepticism of Moscow. At the same time, he primarily spoke Russian, grew up in a Russian-speaking family in the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih and enjoyed significant fame across Russia as an actor. He was seen as the candidate more pragmatic about Moscow.
In between navigating a U.S. impeachment scandal, Zelensky spent much of his first year in office trying to make progress with the Kremlin, arranging prisoner swaps, pulling forces back from the front line and working to tee up an in-person meeting with Putin mediated by Germany and France.
William B. Taylor Jr., the top official at the U.S. Embassy at the time, recalled finding Zelensky in his office in the summer of 2019 expressing curiosity about the “Steinmeier Formula,” an interpretation of the Minsk accords named after Germany’s former foreign minister that the Ukrainian president hoped might lead to a deal with the Kremlin. “No one knows what it is,” Taylor recalled replying. “Steinmeier doesn’t know what it is.”
Zelensky, according to Taylor, grabbed his phone and pointed to a document explaining the formulation, thinking that somewhere in the details of the legalese a workable compromise with Moscow might be found. “It’s a terrible idea,” Taylor replied, though Zelensky went on to endorse it in the coming months, trying to land a face-to-face with Putin.
When that meeting materialized in Paris in December 2019, Putin treated Zelensky as an actor who wandered accidentally onto the set of a diplomatic negotiation, at one point instructing the Ukrainian leader to turn around and smile for the cameras, when they sat down with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Still, Zelensky departed Paris hopeful.
Within weeks, Russia agreed to a broader prisoner exchange and offered Ukraine a $3 billion gas arbitration settlement as well as a new gas transit deal. “But when it came to the details, when the exchanges started and they started to cheat, he already started to say, ‘They don’t seem to keep their word at all and most likely will lie,’” Arakhamia said. “The first changes in the relationship for him already started then.” “I saw the man who said one thing and then did another,” Zelensky told Sky News. As Putin and Zelensky sized up one another, views began to evolve.
“The Russians initially thought Zelensky getting elected was going to play into their hands — a Ukrainian nationalist sort of government was defeated by a Russian-speaking candidate talking about the need for peace and to talk to the Russians,” said Henry E. Hale, a political science professor at George Washington University and co-author of “The Zelensky Effect.” “Soon, it became clear to the Kremlin that he wasn’t going to hand over the farm, that in fact he was just as European-oriented as the other side had been in Ukraine. Therefore, their only action was going to have to be military, if they were going to have hopes of reintegrating Ukraine into Russia’s orbit.”
During a year of negotiations following the Paris meeting, the Ukrainians came to understand that Russia “didn’t sincerely want to end the war,” Yermak said. “The process had reached a dead end.”
By early 2021, Zelensky believed that negotiations wouldn’t work and that Ukraine would need to retake the Donetsk and Luhansk regions “either through a political or military path,” Arakhamia said.
The Kremlin disengaged. “Zelensky came to realize what Russian intentions were about, at least Kremlin intentions,” Hale said. “And the Kremlin came to realize what he was about.” Russia built up forces on Ukraine’s border in the spring of 2021 and rebuffed Kyiv’s calls for talks. “What’s the use of meeting with Zelensky if he has handed over his country to complete outside management?” Putin said in June 2021. “Key questions in Ukrainian life are being solved not in Kyiv but in Washington and partially in Berlin and in Paris. What’s there to talk about?”
Soon after, Putin published a treatise saying that sovereignty for Ukraine was possible only “in partnership with Russia” and warning that he would not allow Moscow’s “historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia.”
By then, Ukrainian authorities had placed Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician who was friends with Putin, under house arrest. U.S. intelligence later in the year began to warn that Russia was preparing for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “When they realized they couldn’t steamroll us, they went to the extreme and made this historically tragic mistake for everyone, including for Russia, and attacked us,” Yermak said.
The day before, Zelensky again tried to talk to Putin. “Today I initiated a phone call with the president of the Russian Federation,” Zelensky said in a direct address to the Russian people he gave on the eve of the war. “The result was silence.”
Toughened by tragedy
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, watched as Zelensky morphed from a peacetime president into a wartime leader almost overnight. “He led. He gave orders. He kept people in their places because some felt panicked. And he did all of this by his own example,” Kuleba said. “He became more resolute in making decisions. … He became more uncompromising on the behavior of people,” Kuleba added.
Arakhamia, the head of Zelensky’s parliamentary faction, said the Ukrainian leader became “10 times tougher compared to when he took office in 2019,” understanding that mistakes — though perhaps understandable in peacetime — were no longer acceptable and would cost Ukrainian lives.
Zelensky remained adamant that Ukraine would not enter another Minsk-type negotiation with Russia, but emissaries from the Ukrainian government still held talks with the Russians in Belarus and Turkey throughout March, until the discovery of Russian atrocities in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. When Zelensky visited Bucha on April 4, he looked visibly stricken, telling reporters it was “very difficult to talk when you see what they have done here.”
Arakhamia said he called the leader of the Russian negotiating team and explained that Ukraine could no longer participate in any negotiations. “How can I fly in and sit down at a table and speak to them?” Arakhamia said. “I simply don’t understand.”
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, recalled having dinner with Zelensky the following evening in Kyiv’s equivalent of the White House Situation Room. Danilov said he and a group of 10 other top advisers had a frank conversation with Zelensky about the prospect of negotiations with Russia and the likelihood that “even if you agree with them on something, they will definitely break their word.”
As he ate, Zelensky listened to everyone carefully, Danilov said. “I think he made a decision for himself that it is extremely dangerous to negotiate with the Russians,” Danilov said. “Moreover, it is absolutely not in favor of our country, despite the difficult situation, despite the fact that we are suffering losses.”
On the eve of Russia’s orchestrated “annexations” of four regions in eastern Ukraine, Zelensky again met with his top advisers to decide on a response. Sybiha, the deputy head of the presidential office, said the team made the decision to rule out any negotiations with Putin, “noting everyone was unanimous in their opinion.”
Zelensky’s interactions with other leaders and staff are now squarely focused on how to achieve victory on the battlefield, not how to reach an agreement with Moscow. “The challenge of any country at war is you want complete vanquishment of the enemy, but in reality, it is probably going to be something short of that. The question is what,” Hale said. “My sense is that he has to just fight for everything that he can right now and cross the bridge of how to settle and when to settle when it comes.”
Kuleba, the foreign minister, said Zelensky’s team believes only in victory. “He is leading the country to the victory that he personally, sincerely believes in — and it’s take it or leave it. It’s true. There is nothing in between for him,” Kuleba said. “And this is also how I feel, because if we imply there is something in between, we are not going to win.”
Paul Sonne covers national security, focusing on Russia and Europe. He previously reported for the Wall Street Journal from Moscow, London and Washington. Twitter
David L. Stern has worked for news outlets in Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East and Central Asia. He has lived in Ukraine since 2009, covering the 2014 Maidan revolution, war in the country’s east and now Russia’s 2022 invasion. Twitter