If there is a name to conjure with in 2022, that name is surely Volodymyr Zelensky. How different he proved to be from our expectations about politicians who find themselves in similar situations. A recent example was Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani who, with American assistance, reportedly fled the country with four cars and a helicopter full of cash. It was claimed he had so much cash, he had to leave some on the tarmac. Refusing a similar US offer, Zelensky famously said on Twitter: ‘The fight is here; I need anti-tank ammo, not a ride.’
No wonder he was soon acclaimed as ‘Churchill in a tee-Shirt’.
Now in the world’s very first book on him, Zelensky, Australians Andrew L. Urban and Chris Mcleod, aim to tell readers the essential things most will want to know about him. This is above all about the transformation which they rightly describe as astonishing, that from TV celebrity to the President of Ukraine.
Zelensky is also the first Jewish president of Ukraine, a fact made relevant because of Vladimir Putin’s appalling fabrication that the invasion was essential to ensure Ukraine’s ‘denazification’. As the authors say, the Nazi pretext does not seem to hold water. To begin, the far-right won just two per cent of the vote in the 2019 election. More likely, Putin’s ambitions were about Ukraine’s resources – manganese, coal, bauxite, natural gas and petroleum as well as wheat and other grains, apart from some long-held obsession about reviving the Czarist or Soviet empire.
As the publisher’s release states, no one must have been more surprised by Zelensky’s power to inspire and mobilise his countrymen and indeed, the world, than the much-diminished Vladimir Putin, who is believed to have assumed it would be the ‘work of an afternoon’.
The authors point out that in 1994, when Zelensky was just 16, Ukraine agreed with the US, Russia, and the UK to hand over to Russia what Anthony Morris QC described in some detail recently in The Spectator Australia as the ‘third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world’.
They signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which is conveniently reproduced in the book together with a timeline. Under the memorandum, all three great powers agreed to respect the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine and to refrain from the threat or use of force against her territorial integrity or political independence.
From a Ukrainian point of view, the memorandum as drafted is next to worthless. How did Ukraine ever agree? Was it corruption, incompetence or both? And why did the US and UK allow a free, new country to sign this?
As the psalmist says, put not your faith in princes.
The price for handing over the former Soviet nuclear weapons should have been a water-tight guarantee against any aggression whatsoever requiring the US and UK to come to their aid, without first going to the UN.
As the authors say, the Russian breaches of the memorandum do not relieve the US and UK of, if not their legal, their moral obligations.
Right-thinking Westerners usually disparage the British wartime prime minister Neville Chamberlain. But how well he compares with today’s politicians.
Most in the establishment, including the media in the UK and Australia, supported Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. But unlike today’s leaders, Chamberlain only gave Hitler one chance.
After he broke the promises made at Munich about ‘peace in our time’ and having no other territorial ambitions in Europe, Hitler began to pressure Poland for the release of more territory. Within months of Munich, Chamberlain and French PM Daladier guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity. When Hitler invaded Poland, war followed.
As to Ukraine, Russia breached the memorandum both in 2014 with the occupation of Crimea, and again in 2022. Anthony Morris rightly argues that nothing proposed by Germany’s Chancellor Scholtz, France’s President Macron, Italy’s Prime Minister Draghi or even Dr Kissinger can guarantee future peace. He says a fresh treaty with Putin would only provide Ukraine with the same security as Russia received under the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Having surrendered the means to defend itself to a powerful neighbour in return for a promise to respect its borders, why should Ukraine now surrender part of its territory in return for being allowed to keep what is left?
As the authors point out, by failing to invoke the memorandum. both the US and UK not only violated the agreement, they have legitimised Russia’s abandonment of it.
As the authors say, there was one big stumbling block to the US-backed Nato joining in after Russia attacked. This was the fear of starting World War III.
President Biden said that he would defend Ukraine to the point of World War III. He ruled out establishing a no-fly zone believing that Russia would regard that as an act of war.
The dictators no doubt have learned from this. Threaten nuclear war and the West will cave in. Fortunately, John Kennedy, Democrat, was made of sterner stuff.
What this means is whatever the treaty, it all depends on who is in the White House.
There can be no doubt, at least in my mind, that if Donald Trump had been president, Putin would have known not to invade.
Returning to Volodymyr Zelensky, as an actor and comedian, he made people laugh but as president of a country under siege he is usually given a standing ovation across the world. Never purporting to be a full biography, there is sufficient here to tell the interested reader much about the President and his transformation.
The story about the TV show is fascinating. There is a wonderful joke about Putin which would be dangerous to tell in Russia bit which will delight readers. I certainly will not tell it in advance.
This book serves the authors’ purpose very well, telling readers about the essential things about this truly remarkable and courageous Ukrainian President.
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Andrew L. Urban Chris McLeod, Zelensky: The Unlikely Ukrainian Hero Who Defied Putin and United the World, Wilkinson Publishing, Melbourne 2022, $24.99.
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