Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy have arrived at two very different points in the war.
A year ago, Zelenskyy received a standing ovation in Congress and promises of billions in aid to help fight Putin’s invading army. The Russian president, meanwhile, appeared to shun the spotlight. His army was losing ground as he fended off challenges from within his own ranks.
On Tuesday, the roles appeared reversed. Putin seemed confident and victorious at a Defense Ministry briefing, while Zelenskyy looked beleaguered at a hastily organized year-end news conference.
The Russian leader sounded buoyant as he touted Russia’s war effort at the briefing, surrounded by his top military brass — a stark contrast to just six months ago when his grip on power and the country’s military leadership was threatened by a mutiny and Kyiv’s new counteroffensive was expected to drive the Russians back as far as their own borders.
Putin’s display of confidence is hardly surprising, said Mark Galeotti, the head of the Russia-focused consultancy Mayak Intelligence. “Putin is in a stronger position now than he has been at any point since the invasion, so he has some reason to crow,” Galeotti, who has written extensively about the Russian president, said.
Zelenskyy, meanwhile, is in a very different spot, he added, falling back on his tried-and-tested tactic of invoking a moral obligation by his allies to help Ukraine as he appeared to take a veiled stab at Washington.
“I am sure that the United States of America will not betray us and that what we agreed with the United States will be fully implemented,” Zelenskyy told reporters.
President Joe Biden, one of Zelenskyy’s closest allies, has asked for $61 billion in new aid for Ukraine, but Congress has yet to greenlight it. Zelenskyy returned frustrated from a visit to the U.S. last week with no solid guarantees of more aid.
Zelenskyy’s invoking the word “betrayal” is part of the “moral blackmail” strategy that has worked well for the Ukrainian leader for the last two years, Galeotti said, but it can only go so far and is starting to wear thin in the West.
“I think it reflects the fact that not only was he disappointed by the outcome of his trip to the U.S., but it also left him looking weaker at home,” he said. “He is meant to be the miracle worker, who goes and suddenly is able to unblock these kinds of problems.”
In the early weeks of the war, Zelenskyy was celebrated for his relentless efforts to get the world on his country’s side. But his star power appears to be fading as war fatigue is setting in, nearly two years into the conflict.
Ukraine’s armed forces surprised many last year after managing to not only hold back the Russians, but liberate some parts of Ukraine. It has led to high expectations for the counteroffensive launched by Kyiv in June, but the Western-backed campaign has largely fizzled out in recent months, with Ukraine unable to mount any breakthroughs. It has undermined the confidence of Ukraine’s allies that the war is winnable and has led to qualms in Washington and Europe about whether providing more aid for Ukraine is sustainable.
It has also led to internal turmoil, with Zelenskyy appearing at odds with his top general, who said the war had reached a stalemate.
Putin has tried to capitalize on the fact that the momentum for both Ukraine and Zelenskyy has faltered, Galeotti said, projecting his self-assuredness.
On Tuesday, he said his troops were “holding the initiative” in Ukraine and have gained military experience that’s unrivaled globally. While Ukraine, he said, was suffering “heavy losses” and has largely squandered its reserves.
He bestowed “Hero of Russia” medals on some of his troops later that day and shared a glass of sparkling wine with them, as he said he was ready to “go till the end” in protecting Russia (Putin has cast the war in Ukraine as Russia’s existential fight against the West.)
Just six months ago, the Kremlin was faced with internal wrangling about how Russian military leadership was handling the war, culminating in the mutiny of longtime regime loyalist Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Putin appeared weakened and stayed out of the public eye, but after the revolt was quashed and Ukraine’s allies started doubting the course of its counteroffensive, the Russian leader appeared reinvigorated, last week holding his biggest news conference since the war began and earlier this month announcing his bid for next year’s presidential election.
“There is no denying that it has been a bad few months for Ukraine and that Putin, having survived the Prigozhin rebellion, is in a much better personal position than he seemed to be in the summer,” said Michael Clarke, visiting professor of war studies at King’s College London.
Zelenskyy, despite the setbacks, is as determined as ever, Clarke said, with more than 60% of Ukrainians still supporting him, according to a recent poll. Albeit, that has dropped from 84% last year.
The Ukrainian leader told the media Tuesday it has been a “difficult year” for Ukraine, but categorically denied that his country was on its way to losing the war. Kyiv is still set on liberating all occupied lands, he insisted.
“He is certainly tired and facing some important internal opposition in Kyiv,” Clarke said.
“Exactly the same had happened to [Winston] Churchill by 1943 — he was tired, irascible, and became increasingly unpopular with the public, leading to his defeat in the 1945 election,” he added. “But that didn’t actually detract very much from his effectiveness as a war leader.”
Putin studied law at Leningrad State University, where his tutor was Anatoly Sobchak, later one of the leading reform politicians of the perestroika period. Putin served 15 years as a foreign intelligence officer for the KGB (Committee for State Security), including six years in Dresden, East Germany. In 1990 he retired from active KGB service with the rank of lieutenant colonel and returned to Russia to become prorector of Leningrad State University with responsibility for the institution’s external relations. Soon afterward Putin became an adviser to Sobchak, the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg. He quickly won Sobchak’s confidence and became known for his ability to get things done; by 1994 he had risen to the post of first deputy mayor.
In 1996 Putin moved to Moscow, where he joined the presidential staff as deputy to Pavel Borodin, the Kremlin’s chief administrator. Putin grew close to fellow Leningrader Anatoly Chubais and moved up in administrative positions. In July 1998 Pres. Boris Yeltsin made Putin director of the Federal Security Service (FSB; the KGB’s domestic successor), and shortly thereafter he became secretary of the influential Security Council. Yeltsin, who was searching for an heir to assume his mantle, appointed Putin prime minister in 1999.
Although he was virtually unknown, Putin’s public-approval ratings soared when he launched a well-organized military operation against secessionist rebels in Chechnya. Wearied by years of Yeltsin’s erratic behaviour, the Russian public appreciated Putin’s coolness and decisiveness under pressure. Putin’s support for a new electoral bloc, Unity, ensured its success in the December parliamentary elections.
On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin unexpectedly announced his resignation and named Putin acting president. Promising to rebuild a weakened Russia, the austere and reserved Putin easily won the March 2000 elections with about 53 percent of the vote. As president, he sought to end corruption and create a strongly regulated market economy.
Putin quickly reasserted control over Russia’s 89 regions and republics, dividing them into seven new federal districts, each headed by a representative appointed by the president. He also removed the right of regional governors to sit in the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament. Putin moved to reduce the power of Russia’s unpopular financiers and media tycoons—the so-called “oligarchs”—by closing several media outlets and launching criminal proceedings against numerous leading figures. He faced a difficult situation in Chechnya, particularly from rebels who staged terrorist attacks in Moscow and guerilla attacks on Russian troops from the region’s mountains; in 2002 Putin declared the military campaign over, but casualties remained high.
Putin strongly objected to U.S. Pres. George W. Bush’s decision in 2001 to abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In response to the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, he pledged Russia’s assistance and cooperation in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorists and their allies, offering the use of Russia’s airspace for humanitarian deliveries and help in search-and-rescue operations. Nevertheless, Putin joined German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French Pres. Jacques Chirac in 2002–03 to oppose U.S. and British plans to use force to oust Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq.
Overseeing an economy that enjoyed growth after a prolonged recession in the 1990s, Putin was easily reelected in March 2004. In parliamentary elections in December 2007, Putin’s party, United Russia, won an overwhelming majority of seats. Though the fairness of the elections was questioned by international observers and by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the results nonetheless affirmed Putin’s power. With a constitutional provision forcing Putin to step down in 2008, he chose Dmitry Medvedev as his successor.