29 March 2022 13:38:16 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment. He lives with his wife and son in Texas. Rao has been a columnist for from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well. Twitter: @rajkamalrao

Could President Zelensky have prevented war?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during an interview with independent Russian news media from Kyiv, Ukraine. | Photo Credit: PTI

In the first war, primarily conducted on social media, the only narrative was: President Putin is evil, wicked, a tyrant, and a murderer; President Zelensky is a superhero.  

For platforms that spend millions of dollars and claim to be equitable, every Zelensky tweet or post is worth its weight in gold. Blue and yellow, representing clear Ukrainian skies and millions of acres of wheat fields as the world’s breadbasket, have replaced all other colors. 

The former actor-comedian has, in four weeks, turned into the world’s best-known leader. Wearing a T-shirt, Zelensky is elegant in expression, persuasive in his commentary and pleas, and a solid model of courage. He received a standing Churchillian ovation at the House of Commons. He urged the US Congress to ban Russian oil and send more weapons. He got both of these wishes within days. 

Zelensky‘s accomplishments on the world stage are extraordinary. As war ravages, he has helped unify scores of countries and companies against Russia, a nuclear powerhouse that spans nine time zones. Zelensky has reinvigorated globalism and the liberal world order.  

Even China has acknowledged that trade with the rest of the world is more important than supporting Russia. Western governments have committed more to defense budgets than in generations. No country has ever been this isolated in 75 years as Russia is now. 

Glaring inconsistencies

But, for what has been Ukraine’s righteous non-negotiable position all along — a sovereign right of self-determination to engage freely with nations that it sees fit — Zelensky has wavered. The  New York Times reported that he is now “open to revising Ukraine’s constitutionally enshrined aspiration to join NATO and even to a compromise over the status of Ukrainian territory now controlled by Russia.” 

Zelensky recently repeated his changed stance when addressing a UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force meeting. “Ukraine is not a member of NATO. We understand that, we are not crazy. For years we have been hearing about the alleged open door, but we have also heard now that we cannot enter.”  

If Zelensky could back down now, could he have prevented war altogether and spared the world of its current misery? Had he signaled his changed stance in mid-February when Putin sabre-rattled by encircling Ukraine with 1,50,000 troops, could that position, along with the threat of western sanctions, have caused Putin to withdraw?

How could Zelensky’s zero-tolerance position become suddenly open to negotiation? Historians will debate this question for years to come. 

Social media would erupt at the suggestion that Zelensky is somehow responsible for the carnage in Ukraine. But in the vast world outside the ether of social media, reasonable people are considering another narrative. Zelensky is undoubtedly not the aggressor, but that does not absolve him or the West from doing everything possible to lower the risk of war  before invasion occurs.

Putin’s aggression was wholly unnecessary, but so has been Zelensky‘s obsession with joining NATO since President Biden assumed office. 

Zelenskky’s unforced error was to fall for President Biden’s neocon foreign policy team, which aggressively pushed Ukraine to abandon neutrality. Zelensky knew the risks of such a move, given Putin’s repeated grievances expressed since 2014. Russia did not want next-door Ukraine to become weaponised by the West and become part of NATO.  

Yet, on November 10, 2021, the US and Ukraine did what Putin hated. They entered into a strategic agreement with an entire section devoted to countering Russian aggression. It outlined how the US would step up weapons delivery to Ukraine. It specified how Ukraine’s integration into “Euro-Atlantic institutions are concurrent priorities.” The deal was a radical departure from Obama’s reluctance to engage with Ukraine. Within two months, Russia had amassed 1,50,000 troops on Ukraine’s border.   

Origins of conflict

The roots of the Russian-Ukraine conflict go back to at least 1793 when the Russian Empire annexed Ukraine. National Geographic says that over the years that followed, a policy known as Russification banned the use and study of the Ukrainian language, and people were pressured to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith. 

In 1979, Frederick Forsyth, the British spy thriller writer of historical fiction, released “The Devil’s Alternative,” a gripping tale about the hatred between Ukrainian fanatics and the Soviet Union. The 400-page novel described the lengths to which a band of Ukrainian partisans goes to publicise that they had actually plotted and killed the KGB chief, a claim that the Soviets deny to the end. 

Back in the real world, from 2000 to 2014, the West wooed Russia for its oil, minerals, wheat, natural gas, and many other resources. Ukraine was never in the picture. The West wanted Russia to behave like the post-war Axis powers — Italy, Germany, and Japan — and reform itself as a liberal democracy.

The elite G-7 countries, which had expanded membership to G-8 to include Russia in 1997, welcomed Russia into the world order. Russia even hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi. 

Most people had never heard of Ukraine until 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, and the West expelled Russia from the G-8. Zelensky was then playing the role of Ukraine president on a popular TV series,  Servant of the People. He was unknown outside the region until he won the presidency in a landslide and took office on May 20, 2019.  

Zelensky would still have remained unknown worldwide but for Washington Democrats’ frantic efforts to impeach President Trump on a phone call. The charge was that Trump delayed weapons delivery to Ukraine, putting Ukraine at risk unless Zelensky investigated Hunter Biden’s lucrative relationship with Burisma, the gas company. 

Trump sent weapons to Ukraine anyway, but the Obama administration’s policy, for eight years, was not to arm Ukraine. In a 2016 interview in the Atlantic where he applied his doctrine to Ukraine, Obama said, “Russia was much more powerful when Ukraine looked like an independent country...Ukraine is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” 

Zelenskky’s changed stance now —that he would be open to revising Ukraine’s constitutionally enshrined aspiration to join NATO — means that his own people and the world have been forced to endure so much pain for a somewhat elastic goal.  

Meanwhile, the fighting continues with no end in sight.