Niall Mulholland, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)
Since the outbreak of the Ukrainian war, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, has become a ‘war hero’. In the Western media, he has gone from being a TV comic to becoming the face of resistance to the Russian invasion. Addressing the House of Commons, Zelensky emulated World War Two British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and won a standing ovation from all the political parties.
In sharp contrast, Russian president Vladimir Putin has denounced Zelensky and his government as a bunch of “drug users” and “neo-Nazis”.
What is the truth about Zelensky’s political record?
During the 2000s, Zelensky was a well-known TV satirist, attacking the corruption of various Ukraine governments. Yet, notwithstanding his public anti-corruption crusade, Zelensky has had a close relationship with the oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, who owned a TV network that hosted Zelensky.
Zelensky attacked the increasingly unpopular government of Petro Poroshenko, who became president of Ukraine in 2014. This followed large-scale street protests against the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych.
In the absence of a strong workers’ movement providing an independent class position, this movement became dominated by pro-Western forces and also far-right elements.
The Yanukovych government was eventually overthrown and a pro-Western government installed. The Putin regime reacted by annexing the predominantly Russian-speaking peninsula of Crimea, which also has an important Russian naval base.
In the east of Ukraine, in the Donbas region, ethnic Russians led an insurgency against the Ukrainian government. From this, the pro-Russian ‘republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk were formed.
Since 2014, a brutal conflict has ensued between the Ukrainian state forces, on one side, and Russian-backed forces in the breakaway republics, on the other. Over 14,000 people, mainly Russian ethnic people, died. Thousands have been displaced by the conflict.
After years of conflict in the east of the country, and alongside a growing economic crisis, the regime of Poroshenko became increasingly unpopular.
The average life expectancy in Ukraine is 71 years, ten years less than the EU average. And the average income in Ukraine is a fraction of the EU’s, and also less than the income of workers in Russia.
Zelensky stood for the presidential elections in 2019, backed by Kolomoisky. Although Zelensky made anti-corruption a major part of his campaign theme, the 2021 Pandora Papers (revealing the hidden wealth of capitalists and politicians) alleged that Zelensky and members of his inner circle stashed large payments from Kolomoisky in a shadowy web of offshore accounts.
Nevertheless, Zelensky was elected on a landslide, with 73% of the vote, on a platform of anti-corruption, and also calling for the de-escalation of hostilities with the pro-Russian breakaway regions in the east of the country.
As well as winning the support of many Ukrainian voters, Zelensky also reportedly won significant support from ethnic Russians, who also wanted to see an end to the conflict in the east and an improvement in their living standards.
Snap parliamentary elections were held on 21 July 2019, and Zelensky’s ‘Servant of the People’ party won an absolute majority, capturing 254 of 450 seats.
In a distorted manner, this gives an indication of the potential that existed for bringing workers together from across the ethnic divide, to find a solution to the living standards’ crisis and the national question. But this would have been predicated on the existence of strong, independent workers’ organisations.
If a mass socialist force had existed and put forward a programme of workers’ unity against the oligarchs and meddling outside powers, alongside bringing the major planks of the economy into public ownership, with workers’ democratic control and management, then the situation could have been transformed.
A workers’ solution would have included ensuring no coercion of any nationality, and the right of self-determination for national minorities, while advocating a socialist federation of the region, on a genuinely free and equal basis.
After winning such a large mandate, Zelensky said he was determined to enforce the so-called Steinmeier Formula, named after the then-German Foreign Minister, which called for elections in the Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The new president, however, soon came under intense internal pressures in Ukraine, including from the far right and ultra-nationalists, and also from US imperialism, which led to Zelensky backing off from meaningful talks.
The neo-Nazi ‘Azov Battalion’, which is a detachment in the Ukraine armed forces, launched a so-called ‘no to capitulation’ campaign against Zelensky’s attempts to start negotiations with the breakaway areas.
The Azov Brigade was formally incorporated into the Ukrainian military after 2014 and since then has been fighting pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region.
Under Zelensky’s rule, nothing has been done to undo the discriminatory anti-Russian language legislation that was brought in after 2014. This includes ending teaching Russian in schools.
State-sponsored Ukrainian nationalism has increased. Streets have been named after Stephan Bandera and other ultra-right Ukrainian nationalists who collaborated with the Nazis during World War Two.
While the crimes of Stalinism in Ukraine – bloody purges, mass deportations, and famine due to forced collectivisation – are widely commemorated, the killing of 1,500,000 Ukrainian Jews, involving the collaboration of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists with the Nazis, is downplayed.
This does not mean the Zelensky’s regime is “fascist”, as Putin claims. A classic Nazi regime would entail the iron oppression of all opposition, and the annihilation of all the organised left, trade unionists and minority groups. Likewise, the authoritarian Putin regime leans on ultra-Russian nationalists, but this does not make it fascist.
Nevertheless, it is clear that ultra-Ukrainian nationalists and far-right activists have a considerable influence in the armed forces and state apparatus in Ukraine. On 1 March, Zelensky replaced the regional administrator of Odessa with Maksym Marchenko, a former commander of the extreme-right Aidar Battalion, whose war crimes in the Donbas were reported by Amnesty International in September 2014.
The Aidar Battalion was also used to attack the anti-coup protests in Odessa in that year, which culminated in the torching of the Trade Unions House and the deaths of 46 people trapped inside on 2 May 2014.
The Ukrainian Communist Party is banned in Ukraine, and since the Russian invasion there are reports of its members being abducted and killed by the state. Two brothers, Mikhail and Alexander Kononovich of the Ukrainian Communist Youth, were arrested by the Ukrainian secret service (SBU) on charges of “pro-Russian views and pro-Belarusian views.”
The most significant influence on Zelensky, however, has been that of US imperialism and other Western powers. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Western powers expanded Nato eastwards. Hubristically, they saw the fall of the former Soviet Union as an opportunity to expand their markets for profits and to increase their influence, prestige and power.
In 2008, Georgia and Ukraine, both former Soviet Union republics, were invited into the antechambers of Nato membership. The US supported the bloody coup against the pro-Russian Yanukovich government in 2014, primarily because it had backed out of talks about joining the EU and was not a client of Nato.
Under Zelensky’s government, the US and Ukraine signed a ‘charter on strategic partnership’ in November 2021. This charter endorsed the aim of militarily retaking Crimea and the separatist-controlled Donbas.
This was in flagrant opposition to the Minsk agreements of 2015, which were cobbled together by Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine, as a supposed attempt to resolve the conflict in east Ukraine.
In June and July 2021, large-scale military exercises were held by Nato forces in the Black Sea. As Putin aggressively amassed military forces on the Russian border with Ukraine and in Belarus during the latter part of 2021, the Biden administration dismissed all talks of diplomatic efforts to try and reach a settlement with Russia.
As war loomed, Zelensky became increasingly desperate and openly disagreed with the predictions of the US and Western powers that Russia was about to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
This reflected the fact that Zelensky was fully aware that the Ukrainian armed forces, while having been modernised since 2014 and awash with arms from the West, is a much smaller force than the Russian army. Zelensky also feared the big economic impact of the predictions of a conflagration on the weak Ukrainian economy.
However, since the invasion, Zelensky has been forced into a position of having to lead the ‘resistance’. This has earned him plaudits from Western powers but also the genuine admiration of Ukrainians and millions of people across the globe.
But Zelensky’s record shows that he is not an independent player. The people of Ukraine are horribly engulfed by a proxy war between Western imperialist powers and the regional imperialist power, Russia.
Zelensky, in hock to Ukraine’s oligarchs, continually appeals to Nato to impose a ‘no-fly zone’ over Ukraine. The Western powers want Ukrainians to fight and die for their interests but dismiss Zelensky’s ‘no-fly zone’ appeals because it would mean a direct war between Nato and Russia, both of which are bristling with nuclear arms.
Nor is Zelensky a friend of the workers’ movement. In July 2020, Human Rights Watch condemned draft labour legislation before the Ukraine parliament that imposes “serious and unjustified restrictions on workers’ rights to freedom of association and to organise”.
Only the working class, which is exploited under capitalism, by independently advancing its own class interests, can show a way out of war and poverty. For this to happen requires workers’ unity, including cross-community, democratically organised self-defence on the ground in Ukraine.
With a programme of fundamental social and economic change, these forces could make a class appeal to Russian soldiers and conscripts to refuse to fight for Putin and his oligarchic regime.
The urgent building of an independent political voice for the working class – crossing all the ethnic and national divisions and allowing the right of self-determination of oppressed nations – is essential.