No fear of war in Ukraine? Selenskyj irritates West

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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a press conference. © Uncredited/Ukrainian Presidential Press Off/AP/dpa

While NATO repeatedly warns of a Russian invasion, the Ukrainian president suddenly appears relaxed. This is surprising, especially in the United States. What does Zelenskyy want?

Kiev/Washington – From a Western perspective, the Ukraine crisis has long been on red alert. NATO has been warning of an attack from Russia for weeks. The US government is convinced that Moscow has enough soldiers on the border with the neighboring country.

Appeals for de-escalation come almost daily from the USA and Europe. However, the fear of war seems to be largely overcoming one of all people: the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

At a press conference last Friday, Zelenskyy accused foreign journalists of scaremongering. There is no greater escalation than a year ago. “Are there tanks driving around on our streets? No! But that’s the feeling when you’re not here.” These are remarkable statements – the head of Ukrainian military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, had predicted the invasion for the end of January just a few months ago.

The USA also received Zelenskyj’s verbal attack: “As soon as the White House understands that there are certain risks, they keep talking about them. In my opinion, that’s a mistake because the world is reacting very strongly to it.” The 44-year-old said he was grateful for the constant support. “But I can’t be like other politicians who are just grateful to the United States for being the United States.”

Washington is irritated

In Washington, this was noted with irritation. Many US media reported extensively. The US side followed up with horror scenarios – more specific than ever: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chief of Staff Mark Milley jointly discussed various military options that Russia had.

Should the assembled Russian forces attack, it would “result in a significant number of casualties,” Washington said. The US government later explicitly defended its warnings again. “We think it’s important to be open and honest about the threat posed by Russia,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.

At the same time, the Americans are aware of Zelenskyj’s dilemma: he has to serve different audiences. On the one hand, he needs the financial and military support of international partners, above all the USA, and must therefore present the Russian actions as threatening. At the same time, he wants to give the Ukrainians the impression that he has the situation under control.

Avoid panic in the markets

Selenskyj himself revealed a great fear: “Today we have to stabilize our country’s economy. All these signals that there will be war tomorrow are causing panic on the markets and in the financial sector.” The fear of a military escalation is causing problems in Ukraine, which is already weak economically. According to Selenskyj, foreign investors have already withdrawn the equivalent of more than eleven billion euros. The local currency hryvnia fell to its lowest level against the US dollar since February 2015.

Inflation is already in the double digits. Further devaluation of the hryvnia would drive up already high import prices for natural gas, coal and nuclear fuel. This in turn would force the government to raise domestic prices for gas, electricity, hot water and heating significantly. Dissatisfaction with the economic situation could push Zelenskyj’s popularity ratings even lower.

And something else could play a role. By spreading fear of war, the US is putting pressure on Ukraine to implement further commitments from the Minsk peace plan negotiated in 2015, Ukrainian political scientist Mykhailo Pohrebynskyj told the Russian daily Kommersant. Only a concession from Kiev could de-escalate the situation. In his own population, however, Zelenskyj would make many enemies.

Half of the population fears war

Many Ukrainian military experts do not anticipate a large-scale invasion by the big neighbor. According to surveys, almost half of the population believes the danger is real. Hundreds of new volunteers signed up for the area defense battalions, which were set up for the first time in 2014. In an emergency, they want to keep their backs free for the regular army: now men and women run through wooded areas and derelict factories with dummy rifles made of wood. Videos also show them re-enacting battles, shouting “bang, bang.”

Some politicians are also surfing the patriotic wave. The mayor of Kiev and ex-boxing world champion Vitali Klitschko, who was traded as the presidential candidate for 2024, recently assured in a talk show: “If military aggression begins, then I will take an assault rifle and go fight for Ukraine.” dpa

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