After nearly six years of conflict with Russia, there is in Ukraine today a somewhat fluid spectrum of public opinion that breaks down broadly into two camps. These are not the camps into which Kremlin propaganda usually—and erroneously—divides Ukrainians: a party of peace and a party of war. Instead, they are divided between those who believe in the near-term possibility of negotiating a peace agreement with Russia that safeguards Ukrainian sovereignty, and those who do not. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has placed himself unequivocally in the first camp. Along with his pledge to battle corruption, Zelensky’s peace-through-negotiation approach, juxtaposed to incumbent President Petro Poroshenko’s sovereignty-by-resistance policy, secured his landslide electoral victory.
Unfortunately for Zelensky, events have conspired to create an inauspicious set of circumstances under which to pursue his chosen path—a situation that could both destabilize his government domestically and undermine Ukraine with respect to its great northern antagonist. By all accounts, Zelensky acquitted himself well in his first major test at the Normandy Format Summit on December 9, but the underlying state of affairs will remain disproportionately fraught for both Ukraine and Zelensky.
The essential problem is that the Russo-Ukrainian conflict is fundamentally asymmetrical, and most of the asymmetries—but, perhaps crucially, not all—work in Russia’s favor.