It’s time we started evaluating the war leadership of Volodymyr Zelensky, who in a few short years has been catapulted from minor regional celebrity to world historical figure. I expect that several of the many books that will eventually be written about this war will focus on his role as a wartime leader; there’s a copious literature on this subject for just about every war worth remembering, and Zelensky cuts a big enough figure that there’ll be a ton of interest in him as subject matter. I can think of at least six distinct tasks on which we can evaluate Zelensky on with respect to his wartime leadership:
- Did he take necessary steps to avoid the war or to place Ukraine in the best possible position prior to the conflict?
- How well did he prepare the country in period immediately before the war?
- How well has he conducted diplomacy related to the war?
- How well has he mobilized the population for war?
- How has he managed the actual conduct of the war?
- How has he prepared the country for war termination?
On two of these (diplomacy and mobilization) I think that we can assess Zelesnky as very nearly above reproach. He has consistently maintained diplomatic pressure on allies and potential allies, facilitating the construction of a coalition that most people would have assessed as very unlikely in the weeks before the conflict. Similarly, by nearly all accounts he has mobilized a fractious Ukrainian population and a corrupt Ukrainian government around war, despite the need to pay astonishingly high social, military, and financial costs. It is possible that over time Zelensky’s appeal will wane, but that isn’t really his fault.
On a third (management of the war) we simply don’t have enough information to judge. We’ll need a much more detailed account of Ukrainian decision-making, as well as sufficient information to conclude that particular decisions (to commit substantial forces to holding the Donbas at the expense of other priorities) were well or ill considered. We know virtually nothing about Zelensky’s influence over day-to-day military operations; although the balance of information suggests that he’s taken a hands off approach that may not in the end turn out to be true. It’s also possible that a hands off approach will turn out not to have been ideal for Ukrainian military decision-making, as there are often points during a war when political direction is required. It’s way too early to tell and there will be books written about this war that will undoubtedly offer contrasting perspectives on Ukrainian performance.
That leaves the first two (both of which involve war initiation) and the last (war termination). The first two are distinct mainly in temporal terms. For the first, the question is whether Zelensky made decisions that either a) would have best enabled Ukraine to avoid the war, or b) would have enabled it to fight with a chance of victory. These involve long-range defense industrial investments and force structure decisions on the military side, and questions of whether (for example) he could have more aggressively pursued a diplomatic strategy intended to either appease or deter Russia. For the second, the question is how Zelensky postured Ukrainian forces in the immediate run up before the war. We can think of the difference between these in terms of World War II; Roosevelt was very good at the first (fully developing the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets, laying the foundations for rearmament, building an alliance structure that the US could rapidly fit into) and considerably less good at the second (failing to anticipate Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or rapid Japanese advance into Southeast Asia, failing to anticipate or prepare for expansion of German submarine warfare to the Atlantic seaboard).
On long term preparation I would not say that Zelensky is faultless. Many of his critics point out that he was elected primarily on a platform of healing the relationship with Russia, and that he most definitely failed to do so. On the other hand, it does not appear to me that the Russians seriously intended to entertain any Ukrainian offers apart from full surrender of the Donbas and accommodation with Russian political domination. Not much you can do with that. In military terms, Ukrainian forces definitely were far better prepared to fight than just about anyone expected, and Zelensky deserves credit for at the very least not getting in the way of that process.
The clearest area on which Zelensky struggled was in the weeks immediately prior to the opening of the war. To be sure the Ukrainian government faced a nearly intractable problem, dealing with the complicated and contradictory impulses of refusing to offer any pretext for the Russians to attack, limiting the economic and social damage of extended military tensions, and preparing for an actual attack. There seems to be ample evidence that the Ukrainian government discounted the prospect of the full Russian invasion that ensued. It’s easy enough to argue that it was difficult if not impossible to predict the precise contours of the invasion… except that US intelligence did a pretty good job of exposing the palpably insane Russian plan to conquer the country. That most analysts (and many within the Russian military) did not believe their lying eyes explains but does not excuse the Ukrainian government’s failure to prepare for the first days of the invasion. Frankly, Zelensky got lucky; the Russian plan fell apart under the weight of its audacity and of core problems within the Russian armed forces.
On the war termination question we obviously cannot come to any conclusion, but there are certainly grounds for concern. It seems possible that ending the war on any terms other than a clear victory going to be tough for Zelensky on domestic grounds:
But Zelensky and his advisers must one day confront the realities of the war and actually approach a negotiating table once more and consider—or make—territorial concessions, that could leave Zelensky on the precipice of political turmoil, according to Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
“Zelensky is going to have to make some really difficult decisions between what kind of concessions to make versus protecting positions of principle, and what kind of concessions he might want to make that could be acceptable to the Ukrainian public,” Pifer told The Daily Beast. “I think that’s going to be a really, really hard decision if they get to a point in a negotiation.”
Being good at war termination means handling the domestic and diplomatic situation sufficiently deftly that it is possible to come to an accommodation with an opponent that leads to an enduring peace. This can but rarely does mean unconditional victory; usually it requires sufficient flexibility to enable space for the combatants to come to an agreement to end the conflict. The decision to allow Japan to keep the basic structure of its imperial institutions (a decision that was quite difficult domestically for Truman) is an example of effective war termination decision-making. Right now we don’t know how Zelensky will handle this; the concern is that wartime rhetoric will so box in the Ukrainian government that it cannot take a “good enough” agreement to get out of the war. But again, we don’t know for sure.
A lot of this will change in the next months and years as the war ends, its aftermath develops, and more information is available about how it started and how it was fought. When this war began I feared that Zelensky would not escape it with his life. Later, I worried that he would go down in history as a historic war leader shortly before being taken down by one of the myriad minor corruption scandals that characterize Ukrainian politics. Now, I just don’t know.