The famous American saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” – meaning when the situation becomes difficult, strong people step up and handle it – is attributed to both John F. Kennedy’s father and the American football coach K. Rockne, while also being popularised by Billy Ocean’s eponymous 1985 song.
Speaking of tough guys, it is hard to find a better example than Ukraine’s army Commander-in-Chief General Valery Zaluzhnyi.
The Ukrainian with possibly the highest popularity rating, even higher than President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Zaluzhnyi is credited for having discreetly prepared the Ukrainian army to be able to withstand the Russian invasion and for spearheading modern warfare, dwarfing the Russian advantage in terms of manpower.
It is important to note that Zaluzhnyi is a modest person who has not previously sought the media spotlight. However, on 1 November, he made a highly unusual move by warning that the war had reached a stalemate phase in a nine-page article in the Economist.
Zaluzhnyi wrote: “The transition of the war to a positional form leads to its prolongation and carries significant risks for both the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the state. In addition, it benefits the enemy, who is trying in every possible way to reconstitute and increase its military power.”
His article is a remarkable document. We, the broader public, rarely obtain such an insight, with so many details, from a key player on the international scene.
Even more remarkably, on the same day, we found out what the leader of a key EU country really thinks about the Ukraine war when a prankster spoke to Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, pretending to be the leader of the African Union.
The prankster asked: “How long do you think the conflict between Ukraine and Russia will last? Have you had conversations with President Biden and others?”
“I see a lot of fatigue; I have to tell the truth from all sides. We’re close to the point where everyone realises we need a way out. The problem is finding one that can be acceptable without undermining international law. I have some ideas for how to manage the situation, but I’m waiting for the right moment to put these ideas on the table.”
The prankster, who turned out to be a Russian, kept provoking Meloni: “Ukraine is not achieving the success that we all expected…”
And she replied: “The Ukrainian counteroffensive may not work as expected. It’s progressing but it hasn’t changed the course of the conflict. So, everyone understands that it could last for many years if we don’t try to find a solution.”
Meloni would never have gone that far if she had spoken ‘on the record’. Her office admitted the recording was genuine, and her diplomatic adviser was fired.
Then, on 4 November, NBC reported, quoting an unidentified senior US official and one former US official, that US and European officials had spoken to the Ukrainian government last month about what possible peace negotiations with Russia might entail.
On the same day, Zelenskyy denied that the war with Russia had reached a “stalemate”, contradicting his commander-in-chief and dismissing Western criticism that the counteroffensive launched in June is proceeding too slowly.
Ukrainian troops, he added, had no other alternative but to keep fighting and they required more support from Western allies, especially with air defences.
“Nobody is putting pressure on me today. No leader of the US or EU puts pressure on us to sit down at the negotiation table,” Zelenskyy said, stressing that such a decision would lie only with him and the Ukrainian people”.
“I don’t believe we have any right to even think about a defeat. There is no alternative,” he added.
Some commentators already see an intrigue between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhnyi in the context of possible presidential elections in Ukraine in the spring of 2024.
Zelenskyy has said that there will be no peace talks between Ukraine and Russia as long as Vladimir Putin remains Russia’s leader. But Putin will have no difficulty being re-elected in 2024.
And there is another election that looms large next year.
If Donald Trump becomes US president for a second time following the November 2024 elections, and with Western attention already turned to the Middle East, the search for a negotiated solution in Ukraine will become inevitable.
The Ukrainian leader, whoever it is, will need to talk to Putin at some point and maybe Western pressure for Ukraine to go to the polls next year will increase, in the hope of electing a leader who will be amenable to peace talks.
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Look out for…
Informal meeting of European ministers responsible for space in Sevilla, Monday-Tuesday.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen receives Abdullah II Ibn Al Hussein, King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Brussels on Tuesday.
Parliament President Roberta Metsola meets the President of the Republic of Malta, George Vella on Tuesday.
Views are the author’s
[Edited by Alice Taylor/Zoran Radosavljevic]