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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Filippouli

Putin’s Game vs. Zelensky's Dignity

Updated: Feb 28, 2022

"Throughout my entire life, I’ve tried to do everything so Ukrainians smiled. In the next five years, I will do everything so that you, Ukrainians, don’t cry", these humble words belong to Ukranian President Volodomyr Zelensky, whose nation and people are suffering under Russia's brutal invasion. As a young comedian Zelensky had a famously funny act in which he played the piano with his penis. His acting career took off quickly, talented and likeable he made people laugh, but he also touched their hearts. Zelensky, who also has a Law degree, starred in the popular satirical TV show ‘Servant of the People’ where he played a high school teacher who gets elected as Ukraine’s President after a video of him railing against corruption goes viral. As fate has it, this is exactly what followed in real life.

Zelensky’s popularity skyrocketed among Ukrainians, who were looking for a leader with the cojones to fight corruption and promote much needed reform in the country. Was Volodymyr the right guy? The fact that they trusted a TV comedian to take on that role indicates people’s disillusionment with those who had the political gravitas to change things but didn’t. After all, if nothing else, a popular actor would bring a breath of entertainment to the country’s corrupt political scene and Zelensky seemed like the right person, honest, fun, and already in command of the President’s role.

Let’s get back to 2013–2014 and the ‘Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine’: Russia’s attempts to turn Ukraine into a pro-Russian dictatorship was exactly what Ukrainian society rebelled against back then. Belarus, another former Soviet state caught in the rivalry between the West and Russia, today is the most telling and dramatic example of what Ukraine avoided through its people’s ‘Revolution of Dignity’. Ukraine’s northern neighbour has been a luring example of tight allied relations with Russia: embrace them, and you get law and order, security, and cheap gas. But the price that Belarus has paid in exchange of these privileges is high. Its national culture has been marginalised, so has its identity, followed by the abolition of rights and liberties. The pro-Russian regime has pushed Belarus into chaos and as Russia presses ahead with its invasion of Ukraine, fears are growing about the country’s sovereignty. Often described as Europe’s “last dictator”, Alexander Lukashenko for the past three decades has tried to preserve elements of Soviet communism: much of manufacturing has remained under state control, main media channels have been loyal to the government and the powerful secret police is still called the KGB.

In 2016 Belarus saw a huge opposition movement, with mass protests and violent clashes, with people taking to the streets to demand new, democratic leadership and economic reform. In week-long protests and nights of violence thousand of citizens were arrested throughout the country. Protests continued in 2020 and 2021, with Belarusians demanding to be allowed to express their views freely and ‘not be afraid to be fired, imprisoned, fined, beaten, or intimidated for it’, as Belarusian basketball star Yelena Leuchanka had publicly stated.

In 2018 Zelensky announced that he was running for office. His production company created a political party named after the show: ‘Servant of the People’. He didn’t have to launch a standard political campaign. The 41-year-old was already enjoying easy access to Ukrainan’s hearts, so all he did was record and post video messages on social media. Buzz, excitement, emotive politics, it all worked handsomely. On April 21, 2019, Zelensky, defeated President Petro Poroshenko in a landslide victory securing himself 73.2% of the vote and becoming the country’s 6th President. In the years following the Dignity Revolution in Ukraine, reforms were carried out in the police sector, in education, medical care, the gas and banking industries, in social security and taxation systems. Degrees of success have varied. Not all hopes and aspirations of the Ukrainian ‘Revolution of Dignity’ came true. However, there appears to be a significant morale boost among Ukrainians: while in 2012, only a little more than 40% of citizens were proud to be Ukrainian, in 2021, polls have shown that this figure has exceeded 70%.

Zelensky’s political prowess and popularity obviously annoyed Vladimir Putin, who doesn’t stomach it well if anyone around him (in the wider geographical area that is) could be a threat to his dominant status. For Putin Ukraine’s separation from the Soviet Union was a mistake in the first place, an error which he wants to rectify. There is another reason for what is happening in Ukraine currently: it is called NATO. For the Russian President Ukraine joining NATO would mean that the North-Atlantic Alliance would have a permanent presence on the borders of Ukraine, under his nose.

A document containing Putin’s “security guarantee proposals”, was delivered to US and NATO last December. On February 1, 2022, when Hungarian PM Viktor Orban visited Moscow, Putin clarified his three main demands for the West: 1. Prevention of NATO expansion; 2. commitment not to deploy offensive weapon systems near Russian borders; and 3. return of the European military infrastructure to 1997 levels when the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed.

As shown in classified documents which found their way to news media, the US and NATO refused to limit NATO’s enlargement or expansion, making it clear that the West will not revert to the position that prevailed in 1997. On February 17, Putin lashed out at the US and NATO, saying, “Russia’s ‘red lines and core security interests, as well as Russia’s sovereign right to preserve them, continue to be ignored. Russia will be forced to respond, including by implementing military-technical measures”.

On February 25, Putin’s army invaded Ukraine. The world is currently witnessing the worst geopolitical crisis since the Cuban Missile crisis, one of the scariest events of the Cold War era. The 13-day showdown in October of 1962, had brought the world’s two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war. The dispute was over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from U.S. shores. For two weeks, President Kennedy and his team wrestled to deescalate a diplomatic crisis of epic proportions, as did their counterparts in the Soviet Union. During the crisis, the Americans and Soviets exchanged letters and other communications, and on October 26, Khrushchev sent a message to Kennedy in which he offered to remove the Cuban missiles if the U.S. leaders committed not to invade Cuba. The following day, the Soviet leader sent a letter proposing that the USSR would dismantle its missiles in Cuba if the Americans removed their missile installations in Turkey. Officially, the Kennedy administration decided to accept the terms of the first message and ignore the second Khrushchev letter entirely. Privately, however, American officials agreed to withdraw their nation’s missiles from Turkey. On October 28, the crisis ended.

Could the Ukraine crisis deescalate sooner rather than later? The thing is that even if Putin succeeds in taking possession of Ukrainian territory, he will not have advanced any closer to accomplishing his declared “security demands”. Ukraine, or whatever remains of it, will be even more anti-Russian, a thorn in Russia’s side. Ukrainians take to the streets daily to protest the war, shouting “Putin, Khuylo!” — a humiliating insult meaning “Putin, d**khead”. The US and NATO will likely send more troops to NATO states bordering Russia to assist Ukraine in recovering and improving its armed strength. And NATO will continue to accept new members. Russia will have spent money and blood, but will Putin have gained anything towards the priorities he had set?

Nonetheless Vladimir Putin has come a long way since taking over an ailing Russia in 2000, a country still traumatised by the demise of the Soviet Union a decade before. Putin’s personal style and governing tactics may have varied over the years, but he is dominant at home and feared abroad for his unpredictability and dangerous tactics. His actions over the past two decades have been motivated by one clear principle: to restore Russia’s relevance and influence on the global agenda. In 2000 Russia was shrunk, cornered, defeated. More than two decades later Putin is playing a political ‘dick-swinging’ game in front of the global community and has embarked on a dangerous show of Russian supremacy. On the other side of the border, the TV comic who has become a wartime leader is a heroic symbol of Ukrainian nationalism — and his piano-playing penis a surprisingly worthy rival of President Vladimir Putin’ phallus-obsessed, toxic, autocratic leadership style .

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