A rough start to the new year

The year 2024 has started very tensely for Ukraine. Republicans and Democrats have been unable to find a compromise on a new military aid package for Kyiv for almost six months. Europe is not yet able to fully cover all the costs of the war, and the capacities of its military-industrial complex still do not meet the requirements of the conflict.

Inside Ukraine itself, mobilization continues, with thousands of videos on the Internet showing people literally being grabbed on the streets and sent to the front. The political atmosphere in Kyvv has become much more tense since the resignation of Valeriy Zaluzhny, the supreme commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, who has become an extremely popular figure since the start of the war. Ukrainian and international media have long reported on the conflict between the country’s political and military leadership. The likely reason for this is disagreement on the strategy and tactics of military operations: Valeriy Zaluzhny advocated a more careful approach and complained about the lack of military equipment, while Zelensky insisted on offensive operations in conditions where the advantages were clearly not on the Ukrainian side.

Economic problems, lack of aid from the West, along with the crisis situation on the front create an extremely negative background for President Zelensky. If this trend continues in the coming months, it risks escalating into the biggest political crisis since 2014 with the threat of a military coup. Below we tell you why.

Is Zelensky’s time running out?

According to Ukraine’s constitution, the country’s president is elected in a nationwide vote with a term of office of five years. Volodymyr Zelensky took office as the country’s president in the spring of 2019. On March 31, 2024, Ukraine was due to hold another election, which was canceled by Zelensky due to ongoing hostilities.

Barring martial law, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s official powers should end on May 21, 2024, after which he is not a legitimate president and commander-in-chief. In the spring and summer of 2023, no one in Ukraine or in the West questioned whether Zelensky had the right to continue serving as president. His personal rating was at an all-time high, and he eclipsed most world leaders in terms of international popularity.

However, an unsuccessful counteroffensive changed the situation dramatically: in the fall of 2023, Russia launched offensives, the key outcome of which so far remains the capture of Avdeevka, Ukraine’s largest fortified area in the east of the country. In addition to the problems on the front, Kyiv has not been able to overcome disagreements with its neighbors: Poland, Hungary and Slovakia continue to express their claims against Ukraine. The palette of these claims includes agriculture, the «territorial and national question,» and history (Poland condemns Ukraine for glorifying Bandera).
Six months ago, Zelensky’s stay in power was justified by inflated expectations from the summer counteroffensive.

Ukrainians and the West expected Kyiv to repeat the success of the Kharkiv operation, to advance decisively and even to reach Crimea. Any talks of «democratic procedures,» succession and political competition seemed irrelevant: victory was looming ahead, and Zelensky could go down in history as the first leader to defeat Russia in the last hundred years.

Changes in Western politics, Russia’s growing military power, and the apparent crisis of military planning in Ukraine could radically alter the agenda. How will Zelensky explain his stay in power? How will his government implement unpopular decisions (especially those related to mobilization)? All of these questions have yet to be answered by Zelensky.

In addition to the likely crisis within Ukraine itself, the question of Zelensky’s illegitimacy may become one of the key arguments for Ukraine’s opponents. Republicans in Congress are likely to play this «card» extremely aggressively, accusing Biden of supporting the dictator. Trump’s supporters have long been trying to make Ukraine look like a «troubled asset» and use all the corruption scandals and military failures to discredit the Biden administration. Should Trump enter the White House, there is a high probability of a complete freeze in relations between Washington and Kyiv.

The most important risk is related to future Russian-Ukrainian negotiations. Russia’s successes on the battlefield will allow the Kremlin to dictate its own terms for a post-war peace, but will Putin negotiate with Zelensky? Where are the guarantees that Ukraine’s next leadership will not overturn the previous leader’s decisions because of questions about their validity?

The lack of elections in Ukraine is becoming a long-term political problem for Kyiv and its allies, contributing to divisions among partners and providing an additional argument for Putin’s supporters. It is time for the U.S. and its European allies to ask themselves what is more important: stopping Putin or supporting Zelensky?

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