”Zelensky changes just like the atmosphere in a room or society.” A brief synopsis of the speech of the historian Serhii Plokhy in Toronto

Maria Zhartovska
Dmytro Rayevskyi
”Zelensky changes just like the atmosphere in a room or society.” A brief synopsis of the speech of the historian Serhii Plokhy in Toronto

Meeting with Serhii Plohii, Toronto, November 4, 2023.

Facebook / Mykola Swarnyk

On November 4, 2023, a public meeting was held in Toronto with Ukrainian and American historian, professor of the Department of Ukrainian History at Harvard University, Serhii Plokhy, organized by the Kyiv-Mohyla Foundation of Canada. The event was moderated by Marta Dychok from the University of Western Ontario. Before the meeting, Babel correspondent Mariia Zhartovska spoke with Serhii Plokhy about his new book The Russo-Ukrainian War. The Return of History and the struggle for the attention of the Western reader. And now we will tell what Serhii Plokhy actually talked about at the meeting and what interested his listeners.

About Volodymyr Zelenskyi and articles about him in the Western press

Volodymyr Zelenskyi was perceived as an actor who did not understand politics. But at the start of a full-scale war, he proved to be an effective leader. His greatest talent is to feel the audience, to understand the audience before they understand anything about themselves. Probably, many politicians have this talent. Zelenskyi changes just like the atmosphere in a room or society. This has its pros and cons. It is one thing to fill the atmosphere in a room, to verbalize, to give meaning, and another to simply change depending on the circumstances. And instead of becoming a leader, you can become someone who follows trends.

Zelenskyiʼs talent can be a source of both strength and weakness. An example is an article in TIME magazine. I think itʼs a change of tone. What society expects from a leader in war is confidence in victory at a time when doubts are growing. Zelenskyi was compared to Winston Churchill, but Churchill became Churchill, sticking to the idea and the messages. It is important for a leader to remain true to his ideas during the war.

About the mistrust of Western politicians towards Ukraine

I donʼt know how much trust there is between politicians at this level. But there are certainly tensions that existed even before the war began, with Zelenskyi asking Joe Biden to stop making public statements about the risk of war or sending weapons. He even demanded this. It did not sit well with many [Western] politicians. In 2022, Zelenskyi actually spoke to civil society [of Western countries] through the heads of these politicians and thus put pressure on them. Which in the end was effective. But it is quite possible that now this strategy has exhausted itself.

This is not a matter of mistrust to Ukraine. The US imagines "red lines" in Putinʼs head, which is why weapons were delivered with delays. Besides, now their focus is shifting because of the war in Israel.

About China and the role of Asia in the Russian-Ukrainian war

As a result of Russiaʼs defeats in Ukraine, Finland and Sweden joined NATO. Also, Russia is losing its influence in the post-Soviet space — we can see this in the example of Armenia and Azerbaijan; China acts as a guarantor of Kazakhstanʼs independence. Russia is losing oil and gas markets in Europe and is focusing on the markets of China and India. China became one of the main beneficiaries of this war — it received energy carriers and Russia as a much weaker ally. We are also seeing a trend towards a bipolar world like what we had during the Cold War when one pole was the US and the other was the Soviet Union. Only now, China is becoming one of these poles, and Russia is its junior partner.

Meeting with Serhii Plokhy, Toronto, November 4, 2023.

Meeting with Serhii Plokhy, Toronto, November 4, 2023.

Facebook / Mykola Swarnyk

About Decolonization and the Global South

It is obvious to Ukrainians that the aggressor is a former imperial state that is trying to disrupt the movement towards the independent existence of the territory that was under control of the empire. And there is zero response to this, zero level of solidarity [from countries that were also controlled by empires]. We had a discussion earlier this year with representatives of India. I was told that my arguments were good but that India was too poor to act based on historical documents. These countries have their own national interests and make their calculations based on them.

Another thing: for many, the concept of anti-colonialism means "anti-West". They do not understand whose side they should take and why. For them, this is a war between rich white countries. So, this is an issue that Ukraine should systematically work on. The writer Victoria Amelina was killed by a Russian rocket in Kramatorsk, where she was taking several writers from Latin America. It was part of an effort to explain this war to the Global South. And this is a difficult process.

About the war between Israel and Hamas

The war in Israel is bad news for all of us. This is bad for Palestinians, Israelis, and Ukraine. Joe Biden took the position that these are two fronts of the same war. Republicans in Congress do not share this position; they want to divide aid to Israel and Ukraine. There are not many weapons. So thatʼs another line of resistance.

About the victory and return to the borders of 1991

Focusing too much on borders is the wrong approach. After all, reaching the borders in 1991 does not necessarily mean the end of the war, it may continue even in this case. In my opinion, victory is not just the survival of Ukraine, the state, and the nation but full integration into Western security and political structures — NATO and the European Union.

Translated from Ukrainian by Olha Panchenko and Anton Semyzhenko.

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