By RFE RL
By Aleksander Palikot
(RFE/RL) — A stark warning of a “stalemate,” a controversial article in a major magazine, and rumblings about elections in a time of war.
These are some of the ingredients in what may be the biggest upsurge in political tension in Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
And there’s more: A deadly grenade blast far from the front lines and a report alleging high-level Ukrainian involvement in the explosions that virtually destroyed a pipeline for Russian gas supplies to Germany did nothing to dispel the atmosphere of competition and contention in Kyiv.
It’s not a crisis, nor even a return to the rough-and-tumble of prewar politics in Ukraine. But in a country whose unity in the face of the invasion is perhaps the principal reason Russia has failed to bring it to heel, it could be a glimpse of deeper discord to come, particularly if things go badly on the battlefield as another winter approaches amid uncertainty over the future of Western support.
“If they’re up for political scandals in Kyiv while we hold the front here, we’re all doomed,” was how Anatoliy — a 40-year-old soldier from a brigade stationed near Vulhedar, a southeastern town that has been pummeled by near-constant battles over the past 20 months — put it.
The “us” and “them” divide is coming up more and more often in Ukraine, where hundreds of thousands of often exhausted soldiers are fighting on the front lines while civilians — and the political class — are coming to terms with the fact that the war may be far from over.
‘Not A Stalemate’?
The prospect of a long, hard road ahead came through loud and clear in an interview in which General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, Ukraine’s top military commander, compared the battlefield situation to the “stalemate” akin to fighting in World War I and warned that one should expect “no deep and beautiful breakthrough” from Ukraine’s forces any time soon.
In an essay published alongside the interview in The Economist on November 1, Zaluzhniy argued that to “break the deadlock,” Ukraine must not only sustain levels of available shells and missiles but also expand its air force, increase domestic defense production, and introduce innovations in drones, electronic warfare, anti-artillery capabilities, and demining equipment.
Many soldiers, such as Anatoliy and several of his comrades, took these statements as a straightforward description of their day-to-day reality.
Vasyl, who has fought alongside Anatoliy since the successful defense of Kyiv in the first weeks of the full-scale war, told RFE/RL that his unit didn’t have “enough power” to break through the Russian lines in the summer, after Ukraine launched a long-awaited counteroffensive in June, and is now focusing on digging trenches deep enough to protect them from the constant Russian shelling and bomb attacks.
“Zaluzhniy was right on the mark — well done!” Vasyl said. “But this alone does not solve our problems.”
In Kyiv, Zaluzhniy’s words didn’t go over so well: They were widely perceived as a tacit acknowledgment that the counteroffensive has failed to achieve its goals.
And they provoked an unusual exchange between military and political leaders, not least between Zaluzhniy and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, that got tongues wagging both in and outside Ukraine about whether a rift long believed to be bubbling beneath the surface was emerging into the open — and how wide it might get.
Two days after the publication, Zelenskiy’s deputy chief of staff, Ihor Zhovkva, speaking live on national television, said the military should refrain from such public statements, warning that talk of a deadlock “makes the work of the aggressor easier.” He said he had swiftly received a “panicked” phone call from a senior official in a country that supports Ukraine’s defense against Russia.
One the same day, Zelenskiy dismissed one of Zaluzhniy’s deputies, Brigadier General Viktor Khorenko, from his role as commander of the Special Operations Forces and appointed a replacement, saying new results are expected. Khorenko later said he and Zaluzhniy were blindsided by the dismissal.
At a news conference the next day, Zelenskiy publicly took issue with Zaluzhniy’s choice of words. “Time has passed, people are tired regardless of their status, and this is understandable,” he said, but the battlefield situation “is not a stalemate.”
Backers of Russia were quick to exploit the situation. On November 7, a fake video disseminated on social media purported to show Zaluzhniy saying Zelenskiy is a “traitor” and calling for a military coup.
Media And Message
The spat poured more fuel on a controversy already swirling over a front-page article in the October 30 edition of Time magazine.
The article cited several people close to Zelenskiy who spoke on condition of anonymity, including one who said the president “deludes himself” about the war and added, “We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that.” It cited another as saying Zelenskiy felt betrayed by the West.
Amid concerns about the counteroffensive and questions about the future of Western support, the Time article touched off nerves in Kyiv.
Mykhaylo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Zelenskiy, told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service that it reflected the “subjective point of view of a specific journalist.”
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, claimed it misrepresented the mood in the president’s office and said some of its content resembled Russian propaganda.
In separate comments, Podolyak denied that Zaluzhniy’s remarks in The Economist reflected a rift between Ukraine’s military and political leadership.
Nevertheless, the two publications contributed to what turned out to be the most politically frantic week since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
‘Tempted’ By Elections
The main catalyst, though, was a remark by Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who said on November 3 that Zelenskiy is considering holding a presidential election next spring.
“We are not closing this page,” Kuleba said, adding Zelenskiy was “weighing the various pros and cons” and that holding elections in wartime would entail “unprecedented” challenges.
Parliamentary elections were supposed to be held in October, followed by a presidential vote in March 2024 — the same month in which Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to secure a new six-year term in his country. But Ukraine’s constitution does not require holding elections during martial law, and by some interpretations it prohibits them.
While it had been widely assumed that no presidential election would be held next March or at any time before conditions allow for safe, free, and fair voting, Kuleba’s statement was far from the first time the possibility had been raised in Ukraine — or in the West, for that matter.
In May, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Tiny Kox, said Ukraine should organize elections despite the war because the Council of Europe’s charter obliges it to do so. In August, during a visit to Kyiv, Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham — a vocal supporter of Ukraine and critic of Putin — also said that elections should take place next year.
At the same time, critics of Ukraine in the West, such as former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, have questioned whether Ukraine is a democracy — echoing a Russian narrative — and said Kyiv should hold elections if it wants to prove otherwise.
Until a seemingly unequivocal comment he made three days after Kuleba’s remark had stirred up debate, Zelenskiy himself had not been entirely clear about where he stood on the issue.
On August 27, he seemed skeptical about the possibility of holding elections during the war, saying on national television that it would require legislative changes, funding from foreign partners, and international observers even on the front lines.
On October 10, he stated he would run for president if the elections were held before the war ended — despite his 2019 promise not to seek a second term — and later declared he would be ready to hold a vote if the parliament and government find answers to all the involved challenges.
Political analyst Ihor Reiterovych told RFE/RL that Zelenskiy is “tempted” to try to hold a presidential election because as a wartime leader with a high trust level he would have a good chance of winning a second term.
That would give him more room to maneuver as the war continues and potentially protect him from declining support if things go badly on the battlefield, he said.
Zelenskiy’s approval rating remains high but has decreased, falling to 76 percent in October from 91 percent in May, according to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS).
Reiterovych believes that’s why several formal and informal working groups in parliament and the government have been discussing the possibility of holding elections under military conditions.
‘Now Is Not The Time’
Many NGOs have strongly urged against holding elections in the near future unless the situation changes dramatically. On September 18 over 100 civil society organizations published a joint statement urging the authorities not to hold elections, arguing that democratic voting is incompatible with a full-scale war.
According to Olha Aivazovska, board chairwoman at Opora, a Kyiv-based civil rights group that monitors elections, frequent Russian missile, drone, and artillery attacks make it impossible to ensure the safety of voters.
“If there are massive rocket attacks across the country on election day and the turnout is 5 or 10 percent, how legitimate would that be as an expression of the people’s will?” she asked rhetorically.
Moreover, with more than 6 million refugees abroad, almost 5 million internally displaced people, millions living under Russian occupation, and about 1 million serving in the army and security forces, opponents of a wartime election say citizens would not have equal voting rights.
Critics also say a big barrier to ensuring an even field is the fact that Ukraine’s main TV channels are broadcasting the same shared content all day within the so-called United News Telemarathon, which could limit opposition access to the airwaves.
Crucially, potential voters themselves are overwhelmingly against holding elections at this point. A survey by KIIS indicated that 81 percent of citizens believe elections should be held after the war, while only 16 percent support holding them despite the war.
This is why Zelenskiy eventually backed down on the idea of holding an election next March after “testing it with the public,” according to Oleksiy Koshel, director of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, an election monitoring organization.
On November 6, after debate about a potential vote swept through the media, Zelenskiy said that “now is not the time for elections.”
“We must decide that now is the time of defense, the time of the battle, on which the fate of the state and people depend,” he said in his nightly address.
But some believe the comments marked a pause, an effort to put politics on hold, rather than final word on the contentious subject of elections.
“All signs of the unofficial start of an election campaign are evident,” Koshel told RFE/RL. He pointed to pervasive political advertising and “anti-advertising” — also known as mudslinging — on the Internet.
He argued that holding elections in 2024 remains the most likely scenario for Ukraine’s leadership, especially in the event of a deterioration of the military situation or even the prospect of having to agree to an unfavorable peace agreement.
“Either we saw a false start or all the important players have begun preparations,” Koshel said.
- Aleksander Palikot is a Ukraine-based journalist covering politics, history, and culture. His work has appeared in Krytyka Polityczna, New Eastern Europe, Jüdische Allgemeine, and beyond.