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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arriving in Ottawa, Canada following a visit to the United States. Photo: Canadian Press via ZUMA Press/dpa

Ukraine war: Zelensky showing the strain as allies turn up the pressure

  • Ukrainian president’s outburst at the UN is a sign of more serious tensions building behind the scenes
  • Diplomatic challenges multiply as allies pressure him to tackle the corruption that has long plagued Ukraine
Ukraine war

The pressure is starting to take its toll on Volodymyr Zelensky.

The Ukrainian president allowed a dispute with one of his biggest allies to spin out of control at the United Nations General Assembly this week, and that’s just a hint of the tensions building behind the scenes.

Zelensky has been leading his country through Russia’s brutal assault for 19 months, all the time fighting on another front to wring the weapons and finance he needs from his US and European supporters.

Now he suspects that US President Joe Biden’s commitment is wavering and other leaders may be taking their cue from the United States, according to a person who met with him recently.

US President Joe Biden meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House on Thursday. Photo: EPA-EFE

He grew very emotional at times during that discussion, the person said, and was scathing in his criticism of nations that he said weren’t delivering weapons quickly enough.

Ukraine’s allies are privately pushing the 45-year-old president to turn his attention to what kind of country will emerge from the war, even as his troops struggle for a breakthrough on the battlefield, according to other people familiar with the matter.

Nato papers over cracks after Zelensky loses his cool

As an incentive to tackle the corruption that has plagued Ukraine for years, several countries are even set to link future financial aid to specific reforms including bolstering the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office, the people said, asking not to be named discussing private conversations.

Those shifts show how international support for Ukraine is moving away from crisis mode in search of a more long-term approach as the prospect of a drawn-out conflict starts to seep into the thinking of leaders around the world.

In the background, there’s also increasing discussion of how long Zelensky can go on before he starts negotiating with the Kremlin, according to one Western official.

All of that means Zelensky is going to have to make progress on fixing the most corrupt state in Europe (other than Russia) if he’s to make it sustainable for his partners to keep financial aid flowing.

Perhaps even harder, he’s going to have to accept that his problems, however gruesome, may not always be the top priority for allies like Biden and Poland’s nationalist president, Andrzej Duda, who both have elections to worry about at home.

It was a public fight with Duda over Ukrainian grain shipments that captured attention at the UN meeting in New York, evoking a clash with the UK at the Nato summit in July.

The latest dispute led to Poland announcing on Wednesday that it had ended arms shipments to Ukraine, before making an abrupt reversal the following morning.

It’s Biden’s own re-election campaign next year, though, that is the biggest worry for Zelensky.

The assembly hall was not full during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s UN speech. Photo: AFP

He was stung not to get an invitation to the Group of 20 summit in Delhi this month, according to the person who met with him recently.

While that was a decision of the Indian hosts, Zelensky saw it as a sign that US support has become more limited and it compounded his concerns about how the 2024 election campaign could disrupt his supply of aid and weapons, the person said.

Biden is already battling Congress to secure more funding for Ukraine with the existing appropriations due to run out at the end of this month.

The Western official agreed that there has indeed been a shift in the nature of support that Ukraine is getting from its allies in recent weeks.

US and G7 allies now expect Ukraine-Russia war to grind on for years

A White House spokesperson said Biden’s commitment to Kyiv is as strong as ever and will last “for as long as it takes”, pointing to remarks at the UN in which he called for other nations to stand with Ukraine.

“We’re with you and we’re staying with you,” Biden told Zelensky during a meeting in Washington on Thursday. The US leader said he is authorising US$325 million in additional security aid and that next week the first Abrams tanks will be delivered to Ukraine.

The package “has exactly what our soldiers need now,” Zelensky said, as he offered repeated thanks to Biden and the American people for their help.

Ukraine’s supporters still recognise that Zelensky’s government is operating under extremely difficult circumstances and, despite that, has made some progress with reforms. They are also keen to distinguish between the strings attached to longer-term financial aid and immediate military support.

Ukrainian forces have been battling Russian troops in a slow-moving counteroffensive. Photo: AP

But leaks in the media from officials criticising the progress of the counteroffensive have stung Zelensky while a string of corruption cases have started to whittle away at the widespread support he has from the Ukrainian people.

Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranked Ukraine 116th out of 180 nations last year, citing systemic abuses of power.

After winning power on an anti-corruption platform in 2019, Zelensky personally lobbied lawmakers to prevent one of his key backers, media owner Igor Kolomoisky, from regaining control of the nationalised lender PrivatBank CJSC. But other measures to crackdown on bribe-taking – including among the judiciary – never materialised.

Reports of fresh abuses by those involved in the war effort have started to hurt morale.

“Anger over corruption is absolutely fair,” says presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak in an interview. “It increases the risks for us because it undermines the sense of solidarity among the people and that weakens the Ukrainian state.” He said Zelensky is fully aware of those risks.

The president has been stepping up his efforts in recent months.

In August, he fired the army officers responsible for drafting Ukrainian men for the war, following reports of kickbacks.

He’s also dismissed some of his own lawmakers and replaced Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov, who had struggled to rein in corruption (Reznikov himself is not being investigated, according to a person familiar with the case). Kolomoisky is now in jail facing accusations of embezzlement.

Still, an opinion poll published this month by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiative Foundation showed that 78 per cent of Ukrainians view Zelensky as directly responsible for state corruption and 55 per cent even said Ukraine’s allies should tie military support to the government’s anti-corruption policies.

The survey was criticised by Zelensky’s ministers, who said the methodology was unfair.

The European Union has given Zelensky until the end of September to show progress in seven areas if its membership application is to advance next year.

The International Monetary Fund, which approved an unprecedented US$15.4 billion package for Ukraine, requires reforms in the same areas.

Among the demands are progress on rule of law and judicial reform, measures to guarantee freedom of speech in the media and to curtail the power of the country’s oligarchs – reforms that would be tough enough to push through during peacetime.

Legislation to beef up the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office was rejected by the Ukrainian parliament in February, with lawmakers reluctant to hand too give much power to an agency that could end up investigating them.

That measure is one that Ukraine’s allies have demanded in return for financial aid, according to people familiar with those conversations. It’s also part of the IMF programme.

Longer-term security pledges which Group of Seven nations are negotiating bilaterally with Ukraine this year will also include a list of reforms Kyiv will have to commit to, the people said. Such reforms would also be a condition for Nato membership.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse