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Kyiv’s Political Feuds Cause Cracks in Ukrainian Unity

Ukrainians on the streets of Kyiv were musing that it had been a week since Russia launched the largest drone assault on the country’s capital when a different kind of attack hit.

Vitali Klitschko, Kyiv’s mayor and a longtime political rival of the president, told German media on Friday that Ukraine was “sliding into authoritarianism” under Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

It was an unprecedented public criticism — unseen since Russia’s full-scale invasion last year — and a culmination of growing personal resentment among the president’s old foes, war fatigue and frustration with western allies turning their gaze away from Ukraine.

“At some point, we will no longer be any different from Russia, where everything depends on the whims of one man,” said Klitschko, a former professional boxer believed to have presidential ambitions.

“People wonder why we weren’t better prepared for this war, why Zelenskyy denied until the last moment that it would come . . . or [how] the Russians could get to Kyiv so quickly,” he added, echoing public sentiments discussed almost exclusively in private since February 2022.

Vitali Klitschko, centre, at a ceremony in Kyiv earlier this year. The city’s mayor is a longtime political rival of Volodymyr Zelenskyy © Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Zelenskyy responded on Sunday by urging the public to “remember that the battle for the fate of Ukraine continues” and that “it’s not on social media, not in arguments over political matters, not in squabbling” that it is fought.

Zelenskyy reignited another feud on Saturday by banning his predecessor and political foe Petro Poroshenko from leaving the country for a series of meetings, including with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, said it had advised parliament to rescind permission for Poroshenko’s trip after it became aware of the Orbán meeting. The agency claimed that Russian intelligence was planning to use the meeting for its own propaganda purposes and to sow discord in Kyiv.

Poroshenko, who is an MP and leader of the opposition European Solidarity party, said he wanted to try to convince Orbán — a staunch Ukraine sceptic — to support the country’s accession to the EU. Poroshenko said the decision to bar him from exiting the country was “senseless, baseless and it discredits not only the opposition but also democracy in Ukraine”.

The political feuding, according to analysts, could be seen as a worrying sign that the unity that has held the country together in the face of Russian aggression is beginning to crack, just as the war settles into a grinding stand-off at the end of a disappointing Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The deepening rifts and mudslinging come amid fraught debates in the US and EU over the future of financial and military aid for Kyiv. Some officials and analysts in Ukraine are concerned that the internal squabbles could discourage western allies from maintaining their support.

“I am watching what is happening in our politics recently not with sadness, but with horror,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst and director of the Penta Centre for Political Studies, a Kyiv-based think-tank. “If this vortex of conflict is not stopped, it could all end badly. Not for those fighting among themselves, but for the country.”

Fesenko said Klitschko’s comments were “exaggerated” and the powers provided to Zelenskyy under martial law “very limited and temporary”.

Following Russia’s full-scale invasion last year, Zelenskyy declared martial law and Ukraine’s parliament set about rubber-stamping legislation in support of the extraordinary powers the president needed to defend the country and set it on a war footing.

“After the end of the war, martial law will end and postwar elections will most likely restore the parliamentary-presidential form of government in Ukraine,” said Fesenko.

But the political consensus behind Zelenskyy and his actions is beginning to falter as the war drags on. “Politics is back, absolutely,” said a Ukrainian official from Zelenskyy’s inner circle.

In addition to political rivalries, tensions between Zelenskyy and his top military commander, Valeriy Zaluzhny, have been accumulating for more than a year. But their strained relationship only spilled into the public view last month, when Zaluzhny told The Economist that the war had reached a “stalemate”.

He was promptly rebuffed by the president, who insisted the word stalemate was wrong, although he later admitted that the counteroffensive had failed to achieve its goals. Zelenskyy then fired a commander who was seen as close to Zaluzhny without notifying him. Members of the president’s Servant of the People party also piled in, publicly attacking the commander and demanding that he be replaced.

The rivalry seems to have political undercurrents after recent polls showed Zelenskyy and Zaluzhny almost neck and neck if elections were to be held now. A poll by Kyiv’s Rating Group conducted in November showed that 42 per cent of voters would choose Zelenskyy, while 40 per cent said they would vote for Zaluzhny. In the same poll, 82 per cent of respondents said they trusted Zaluzhny, compared with 72 per cent for Zelenskyy.

Zelenskyy has dismissed the idea of holding elections in wartime and about 80 per cent of Ukrainians support delaying them. But he could be tempted to change his mind and hold a vote sooner, before his popularity falls further, insiders say. Zelenskyy has also warned Ukraine’s generals against wading into politics, saying it would be “a huge mistake”.

While some in Kyiv see the infighting as simply the return of Ukrainian politics as usual, others see the Kremlin’s hand in it.

Ruslan Stefanchuk, Ukraine’s Speaker of parliament, dismissed the conflict between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhny as “Russian propaganda” being spread on Russian channels. A senior Ukrainian government official also said there was “no fight, just disinformation”.

Oleksandr Lytvynenko, Ukraine’s chief of foreign intelligence, warned in a rare public assessment of the war last month that Moscow had been ramping up efforts to divide and destabilise Ukraine, including by stirring up grievances among the country’s political and military elite in hopes of influencing a change in leadership.

“The Russians don’t care who comes to power after the current leadership,” said Lytvynenko. “They are convinced that whoever it is, he will not be able to control the situation and Ukraine will plunge into chaos.”

Fesenko, of the Penta think-tank, said Ukraine’s political class needed to once again set aside their differences and “impose a strict taboo on all internal debates” for the sake of the country.

“To Zelenskyy and Zaluzhny, Poroshenko and Klitschko, to all influential political figures . . .  fight the external enemy, not among yourselves,” he said. “You can compete with each other after you help our soldiers win the war.”