By Carl Mirra
Some scholars’ record of achievement is so extensive that their influence may indeed shape how events are interpreted. Stephen Cohen, now deceased and a former professor of Russian Studies at Princeton University, is one such figure. He was a regular contributor to newspapers and a commentator on Russia for CBS News among other notable outlets. The towering realist scholar, John Mearsheimer, is another such figure. A distinguished professor at the University of Chicago, he offers trenchant commentary on global affairs on ABC, CNBC, PBS and outlets across the world. And finally, there is Noam Chomsky, the “world’s most cited living person.” Not only has Chomsky revolutionized the field of linguistics, his prolific writings on foreign policy from the Vietnam to Iraq war documented U.S. transgressions long before it was popular to do so.
These disparate scholars, the liberal Cohen, realist Mearsheimer, and the “radical” Chomsky deserve the accolades bestowed on them, and yet they share a something in common that unsettles me, and should unsettle us all. And now Roger Waters, made famous as a guitarist in the iconic rock band, Pink Floyd, has joined this chorus, having gone so far as to pen an open letter to Ukraine’s first lady (here and here).
What unsettles me concerns their easily refuted assertions about the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian whose television show “Servant of the People” now serves as the name of his political party. Each of these notable figures has asserted that Zelensky was elected on a “peace platform” in 2019, and his failure to implement this “mandate” to end the Russo-Ukrainian war was because threats from the far right made him reverse his position. The problem is that this is not true.
The peace process was, and is, not stalled because the far right causes fear and trembling in Ukrainian politicians. The peace process is failing, or has failed, because of the ambiguity of Minsk, the 2015 agreement to end hostilities. It allows key players, such as Putin, to claim Russia is not a party to the conflict, among other problems. To demand the implementation of Minsk is to demand failure, in part, because it was negotiated in a position of defeat for Ukraine, and allows Russia to pursue its hybrid war aim of destabilization through federalization.
The storyline that Zelensky can’t make peace because of the far right may tacitly legitimize the notion that Ukraine needs a little “denazification.” Connecting Ukraine’s government to the far-right risks feeding one of Russia’s justifications, admittedly a flimsy one, for its invasion.
What exactly did these notable scholars say about the matter of Zelensky’s failure to forge peace? Cohen, in a November 2019 interview, proclaims:
the new president of Ukraine, Zelensky, ran as a peace candidate. This is a bit of a stretch…Zelensky won by, I think, 71, 72 percent. He won an enormous mandate to make peace. So, that means he has to negotiate with Vladimir Putin. And there are various formats, right? There’s a so-called Minsk format…there’s a bilateral directly with Putin. But his willingness—and this is what’s important and not well reported here—his willingness to deal directly with Putin, which his predecessor, Poroshenko, was not or couldn’t or whatever reason—actually required considerable boldness on Zelensky’s [part], because there are opponents of this in Ukraine and they are armed. Some people say they’re fascists but they’re certainly ultra-nationalist, and they have said that they will remove and kill Zelensky if he continues along this line of negotiating with Putin. (1)
Mearsheimer, with less nuance than Cohen, likewise insists that Zelensky wanted to win peace. He says that Zelensky knew that “if you wanted to shut down the conflict in Ukraine, you had to implement Minsk II.” Zelensky “found out very quickly that because of the Ukrainian right, it was impossible to implement Minsk II. Hence, “even though the French and the Germans, and of course, the Russians were very interested in making Minsk work, because they wanted to shut down the crisis. They couldn’t do it.” Mearsheimer continues, “in other words, the Ukrainian right was able to stymie Zelensky…Now Zelensky understands that if he cuts a deal with Russia today, he has to face the Ukrainian right. That’s why Zelensky said that any peace agreement has to be approved by the Ukrainian public because he understands he can’t take on the Ukrainian right…so basically we have a situation where Zelensky is stymied.” (2)
And Chomsky offers a similar opinion.
“In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected with an overwhelming majority — I think about 70% of the vote — on a peace platform, a plan to implement peace with Eastern Ukraine and Russia, to settle the problem. He began to move forward on it and, in fact, tried to go to the Donbas, the Russian-oriented eastern region, to implement what’s called the Minsk II agreement. It would have meant a kind of federalization of Ukraine with a degree of autonomy for the Donbas, which is what they wanted. Something like Switzerland or Belgium. He was blocked by right-wing militias which threatened to murder him if he persisted with his effort.” (3)
Waters’ echoes these scholars in an open letter to Olena Zelensky in September 2022. The musician chastises her husband’s inability to live up to “the platform upon which he won his historic landslide victory,” namely to, “ratify and implement the rest of the body of the Minsk 2 agreements.” But, “factions persuaded your husband to diametrically change course ignoring the people’s mandate. Sadly, your old man agreed to those totalitarian, anti-democratic dismissals of the will of the Ukrainian people, and the forces of extreme nationalism that had lurked, malevolent, in the shadows, have, since then, ruled the Ukraine.”
Taken together, these leading scholars and famous musician advance the view that Zelensky was: 1). Elected on a peace platform; 2). He tried to fulfill it by supporting the Minsk accords of 2015 to end the conflict; but 3). Zelensky “betrayed” or at least failed to carry out a peace deal because he feared the far right. I explore how these claims lack validity below.
Enter Noam Chomsky. This exploration was bolstered as a result of reaching out to Chomsky about Zelensky’s election program. To my surprise he read my lengthy forays into the peace platform, Minsk, and even a diatribe on Russia’s war aims. As for the peace platform, Chomsky explained that, “I quite agree that we should make clear what happened in 2019. Everything I’ve read indicates that Zelensky was elected on a peace platform and tried to explore the options until he was blocked by the far right.”
I persisted that Zelensky was not simply elected on a peace platform. It was a single bullet point in a nine-point, pre-election platform program. Exit polls and informed commentary inside Ukraine attribute his victory to his popularity as an actor, his anti-corruption platform and how it was a protest vote against the incumbent Poroshenko. His crafty social media messaging as a “populist” outsider also helped.
Chomsky replied that, “The question is what was in the peace program, and whether the overt assassination attempts deterred him from pursuing peace. That would be important to document…If the program on which he was elected stated that no negotiations could be undertaken unless Russia withdrew from Crimea, that should be made public. I haven’t seen it anywhere.”
The election platform explicitly states a no concessions stance (“surrender of territories cannot be subject to any negotiations”). These scholars claim the far-right’s threats and protests for “no concessions” is the causal factor. Before any serious threat to his life, Zelensky’s 2019 election platform states:
“We must win peace for Ukraine. Before the guarantors of the Budapest Memorandum and partners with the EU, we will raise the issue of supporting Ukraine in its efforts to end the war, return the temporarily occupied territoriesand force the aggressor to compensate for the damage caused. Surrender of national interests and territories cannot be subject to any negotiations.” (4)
The platform, which is rarely consulted, explicitly debunks the narrative that Zelensky betrayed his “peace platform” in taking a no concessions stance because he was threatened by the far right. There is additional documentation:
During his campaign in 2019, Zelensky’s official campaign posted a statement on the campaign website. It states:
“Crimea was, is and will be part of Ukraine, which should come back to it with compensation from Russia for losses caused by the occupation and compensation to the victims and families of those who were killed during the Russian repression. We are not ready to give away, present, rent or give into concession Ukraine’s sovereign territory. This cannot be a matter for talks and agreements! This position is unyielding and uncompromising. No agreements on de-escalation in Donbass can be reached at the expense of Crimea and Ukrainian nationals who were forced to stay on the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea.” (5)
Additionally, this stance was publicized in the Ukrainian and Russian press during the election cycle:
In April 2019 before the election commission certified a final vote count, Zelensky, publicly addressed Putin directly, having stated he wanted peace, but Russia must withdraw from Crimea:
Zelensky: “we are ready to discuss new conditions for the coexistence of Ukraine and Russia. With the understanding that true normalization will occur only after complete de-occupation. Both Donbass and Crimea.” (6)
There are more examples of Zelensky announcing that Crimea and Donbass belong to Ukraine and need to be returned. He is indisputably on record, including his campaign platform, to committing to Russian withdrawal before any substantive negotiations can occur. It also belies common sense to say that Zelensky, who remained in Ukraine with Russian tanks headed to Kyiv while threatening to assassinate him, caved into some right-wing rambling threats.
An examination of Ukrainian political discourse during the elections also shows that Zelensky was sometimes criticized for being too much like former president Poroshenko’s no concessions stance. Again, the no concession stance has little to do with far-right’s threat and was already embedded in executive politics as reported as early as 2014. To be sure, no concessions is at variance with the implementation of Minsk in full as is demanded by Zelensky’s critics.
As for public opinion, Waters engages in smug moralizing when he states, “your old man agreed to those totalitarian, anti-democratic dismissals of the will of the Ukrainian people.” In fact, Zelensky is consistent with public opinion polls in Ukraine since 2014. It is Waters who dismisses the Ukrainian people. If democratic opinion is of concern for Waters, he would at least wrestle with the following polls, or even so much as mention a Ukrainian scholar such as Tymofii Brik who has worked on large-scale opinion polls. I asked Professor Brik about these claims that Ukraine should surrender territory and implement Minsk, and has only failed to do so out of fear of the far right. He says this is a “false narrative,” based largely on public opinion polls that he and colleagues have conducted for the past eight years that contradict this narrative.
But we don’t have to take Brik’s word at face value. Separate polls, including a nationwide survey in 2021 that found only 12% of Ukrainians favored implementing Minsk in full. In 2019, another nationwide poll shows that only 20% of Ukrainians believe elections should be held without preconditions (Zelensky’s position as noted above). Ukrainians have for some time agreed with Zelensky on the withdrawal of Russia forces as necessary for negotiations going back to 2014. (7) Waters appears to project his own blatant dismissal of the people onto Zelensky.
I should add that I traveled to Ukraine in the summer of 2022 conducting a public opinion survey and oral history interviews. It is abundantly clear to me that Ukrainian’s views are consistent with Zelensky’s position and that he has not violated an imagined peace platform.
And Chomsky helps to clarify and summarize all this. He says the “crucial point is the whether the program on which he was elected” states that territories can’t be surrendered.” If so, “it should indeed be made public.” It has been difficult to make public because intellectual giants like Cohen, Mearsheimer, Chomsky, and now a celebrity singer/songwriter, have circulated the assertion that the far-right assassination threat caused the formation of Zelensky’s no concessions stance. I feel like David up against not one, not two, not three, but four Goliaths. But I’m not looking to throw stones at these accomplished writers.
I am, however, looking to toss some evidence their way. When the evidence above was thrown to Chomsky, he responded that:
“It surely is important to put the facts about 2019 on the record, for the first time I think, so we don’t have to rely on second-hand reports — almost all tracing to Cohen, as far as I’ve seen. A little surprising that Moscow hasn’t made it public, claiming that it supports their propaganda stance about Ukraine’s responsibility for the failure of Minsk II. Apart from that, all that’s necessary it seems is to present the facts and documents, it seems for the first time. That lays the issue to rest.” (8) (italics are Chomsky’s)
Carl Mirra, PhD, is associate professor and director of Liberal Studies at Adelphi University. He has published several books including, Soldiers and Citizens: An Oral History of Operation Iraqi Freedom (Palgrave), and his foreign policy articles have appeared in Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Foreign Policy in Focus and elsewhere. He is also a former marine who traveled to Ukraine in 2022 to conduct oral history and a public opinion survey while performing small-scale humanitarian work.
- “Ukrainegate impeachment saga worsens US-Russia Cold War, 13 November 2019, https://thegrayzone.com/2019/11/13/ukrainegate-impeachment-saga-worsens-us-russia-cold-war/
- “John Mearsheimer on War in Ukraine with Katrina vanden Heuvel, Ambassador Jack Matlock,” 7 April 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hH3s7MRJkAI
- “Chomsky and Barsamian, “In Ukraine, Diplomacy Has Been Ruled Out,” TomDispatch, 16 June 2022, https://tomdispatch.com/welcome-to-a-science-fiction-planet/
- Pre-election program of the candidate for the post of President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenski,” (I wish to thank Professor Olga Baysha for providing the platform. Italics mine).
- “Zelensky was told about occupied Crimea,” Ukrayiniska Pravda, 15 April 2019, https://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2019/04/15/7212287/. “Ukraine’s Frontrunner’s HQ says no compromise on Crimea,” BBC Worldwide Monitor, 15 April 2019. Italics mine.
- “Passport Substitution: Zelensky entered into dispute with Putin,” Kommersant 29 April 2019, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3960019?from=doc_vrez Italics mine.
- Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, “Socio-political sentiments of the population,” 6 December 2019, https://dif.org.ua/article/shlyakhi-dosyagnennya-miru-na-donbasi-suspilni-nastroi-ochikuvannya-perestorogi-zagalnonatsionalne-opituvannya The Kyiv International Institute of Sociology polling showed something similar from 2015-2019. For the 2021 Sociological Rating Group, “Sociopolitical attitudes of the population,” https://ratinggroup.ua/research/ukraine/obschestvenno- politicheskie_nastroeniya_naseleniya_6-8_dekabrya_2021.html. For 2014, where the numbers are more split but a majority still adopted a no compromise position, see https://www.kyivpost.com/article/content/ukraine-politics/over-half-of-ukrainians-say-minsk-agreements-contradict-national-interests-poll-409222.html Author interview of Tymofii Brik, at Kyiv School of Economics, Kyiv, Ukraine, 28 July 2022.
- Of course, this is not the first time Zelensky’s election platform has been made public. It is publicly available in Ukraine and on Zelensky’s website. It seems available for the first time only because Western scholars tend to ignore or overlook Ukrainian sources. That overlooking is what started this mess of disinformation in the first place. It is difficult to correct because well-known intellectuals and artists frame Ukraine in clichés and caricature to borrow Mark Galeotti’s phrase.