Where previous Hetmans failed, Zelensky is succeeding

Zelensky’s leadership style has been characterised by a sense of unity and national pride, reflecting the values of the Hetmanate period when Ukrainians were united in their struggle for independence.

Ukraine has long been at the centre of great geopolitical struggles due to its strategic location, which serves as a crucial crossroads between Europe and Asia.

Centuries of bloodshed and foreign domination have battered the Ukrainian people, yet the fight always continued for a state to call their own – one that is free and not subject to the rule of foreign tyrants. Many Ukrainian leaders rose to fight for an independent Ukraine, and many have failed over the centuries. Now Ukraine’s freedom is under attack by a larger foreign state, but this time around, things are far different with President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Zelensky’s ability to unite the Ukrainian people and secure international support has breathed new life into the fight for Ukraine’s freedom.

His diplomatic efforts and strategic alliances have fortified Ukraine’s defenses and strengthened its position on the global stage. While the challenges ahead remain daunting, Zelensky’s leadership embodies the resilience and determination that has defined the Ukrainian spirit throughout history.

With a united front and a leader who embodies the values of freedom and independence, Ukraine stands poised to overcome the formidable obstacles it faces and emerge stronger than ever before.

The historical struggles of Ukraine

In 1363, Lithuanian forces defeated the Mongos under Murad Khan at the Battle of Blue Waters and incorporated much of present-day Ukraine into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. For the next several hundred years, Ukraine was under the dominance of the Grand Duchy and later the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

From the 15th century onward, thousands of men, escaping slavery and serfdom, settled the lands of modern-day Ukraine that would later become the Cossack Hetmanate, a semi-autonomous state run by the famously free-spirited Slavic warriors. 

The Hetman was the highest military and political leader of the Cossack Hetmanate. The Hetman was also the commander-in-chief of the Cossack army and the state responsible for administering the Cossack territories and protecting its people.  While much of the Cossack territory was under Polish-Lithuanian rule, in 1648 the Ukrainians attempted to break free from their subjugation, partly because of the injustices they faced from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The great uprising of 1648 was led by Ukrainian rebels against the Polish-Lithuanian rule and was one of the most cataclysmic events in Ukrainian history. The leadership of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1648–57), his exceptional organisational, military, and political talents played a crucial role in the success of the Ukrainian uprising.

The Cossack rebellion led by Khmelnytsky scored a surprising number of initial victories and captured the imagination of the Ukrainian people, winning broad support for the mass movement against the tyranny of the Polish nobility. However, 16th-century Eastern Europe was also a complex web of ever-shifting political alliances. Khmelnytsky needed help in his war and found an ally in the Ottoman Empire and the Crimean Khan, securing over 40,000 strong Tatar troops to help in the fight. 

The Crimean Tatars proved treacherous allies to Ukraine. Khmelnytsky won several crushing battles against the Polish crown, and betrayal followed. After the Tatars betrayed the Cossacks for the third time in 1653 to ensure no Cossack victories in the most decisive battles, the Khanate wanted the Cossack uprising to persist in keeping Poland weakened and ensure there wouldn’t be a robust Ukrainian state to threaten them.

The best deal on the market

Khmelnytsky needed to look for new allies, which ultimately led to the period known as ‘The Ruin‘ for the Cossack state. He made perhaps the greatest mistake in Ukrainian history and asked for support from Tsar Aleksei Romanov of Muscovy. In 1654 the Cossacks and emissaries of Alexis signed the treaty of Pereyaslav, submitting Ukraine to Russian rule to aid in Ukraine’s fight against the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. From the perspective of the Cossacks, they thought it would be a temporary alliance against Poland-Lithuania, and it seemed to be the best deal on the market. 

Cossacks and the Russians needed interpreters to understand each other, even using terms like “foreigner” with one another. The Cossacks thought the treaty was binding for both sides, but the Russian Tsar believed the Cossacks to be his new subjects and their lands, his realm. The Treaty of Pereiaslav of 1654 began the end of Ukrainian statehood. It’s an event that the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and even modern-day Russia continues to promote to this day.

However, half a century later, Tsar Peter I of Russia refused to honour the agreement with the Cossacks. During the Great Northern War, King Charles XII of Sweden ventured into Ukraine to attack the Russians. The Cossack leader Hetman Ivan Mazepa would then mount another challenge to break Ukraine free from the domination of foreign powers. Mazepa aligned the Cossacks with the Swedish crown but was defeated at the Battle of Poltava in 1709.

Muscovite troops levelled the capital of the Hetmanate Baturin and massacred over 10,000 people, including women and children.

The Russians burned people in their homes, and the corpses of the leading Cossacks were tied to boards and floated down the Seim River. Much like the Russian soldiers today, the Muscovite soldiers looted the town and local settlements and razed buildings, including churches. The Russians continued to conduct bloody repressions and began the gradual Russification of the Ukrainian people, which continues to this day. 

The Bendery Constitution

After Mazepa died in 1710, Pylyp Orlyk was elected Hetman and established the Bendery Constitution, one of the world’s first such treatises, empowering the citizenry and introducing separation of powers between legislative and executive branches. The document created a wide range of civil liberties and rights guaranteed by the state. The Pylyp Orlyk Constitution was among the first written constitutions in the world, 77 years before the Constitution of the United States was written. Orlyk’s visionary ideas would shape Ukrainian thinking and nation-building for centuries. 

Orlyk signed a treaty with the Crimean Khanate in 1711 and was initially successful in his campaign against Russia. However, similar to Khmelnytsky’s eventual downfall, the Crimean Tatars proved to be unreliable allies for Orlyk. Instead of offering the assistance he anticipated, the Tatars resorted to raiding various regions of Ukraine. He continued to pursue policies to liberate Ukraine from Russian rule and worked on assembling an anti-Russian international coalition. 

Orlyk knew the venomous danger Russia brought and prophesied the future: “Who cares for the interests of Europe and its particular states, in general, will easily understand the danger for Europe’s freedom of such an aggressive state as Russia.” However, like his predecessors, Orlyk failed to secure a free Ukraine. 

With the accession of Catherine II (the Great) in 1762, all vestiges of Ukrainian autonomy were eventually eliminated under her rule, and in 1775 the Zaporozhian Sich, the bastion of the Cossacks, was destroyed by Russian troops. In its place, the institution of Russian serfdom (similar to slavery) ensured. 

Taras Shevchenko’s fight for Ukrainian identity

Taras Shevchenko, the 19th century Ukrainian poet whose literary writings laid the foundation of modern Ukrainian literature, was convicted in 1847 by the Russian Empire. He had been charged with promoting Ukrainian independence, writing poems in Ukrainian, and ridiculing members of the Russian Imperial House. Shevchenko’s work contributed enormously to the growth of the Ukrainian national consciousness.

The poet also looked to George Washington as the ideal leader for a country and dreamed of creating a republican form of government. Shevchenko once asked: “When will we greet our own George Washington at last? With the new law of righteousness?” He envisioned that one day, Ukraine would be led by a George Washington-like figure. Shevchenko was zealous in his fight for Ukrainian nationhood, a believer in freedom, and loath tyrants. 

Shevchenko, who himself was once a serf and therefore intimately familiar with the horrors of slavery, emphasized the universal yearning for freedom from oppressive rule. Above all else, freedom was the most essential value to him. His goal was not to foster unity among people based on ethnic or religious affiliations but rather to rally individuals around the shared goal of securing liberty for all.

Fast forward to 2022, Russia launched a complete invasion of Ukraine to undermine the country’s independence once more. Russian President Vladimir Putin, declared that his intentions for Ukraine were detailed in a contentious essay he authored the previous year. Putin reaffirmed his often-expressed belief that Russians and Ukrainians are essentially one people, insinuating that the existence of Ukraine as a sovereign state is ultimately subject to Moscow’s approval.

These notions are far from novel.

In 2008, Putin explicitly informed George W. Bush that Ukraine is not a legitimate nation, a statement that has since become infamous. Former US President Bill Clinton stated that he knew back in 2011 that Putin would attack Ukraine at some point because Putin stated that he was not bound by the Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing the country’s territorial integrity.

Clinton also expressed remorse over his involvement in the 1994 deal that resulted in Ukraine giving up its nuclear arsenal, believing that if Ukraine still had nuclear weapons, Russia might not have invaded. Putin, who shares Stalin’s perspective, perceives Ukrainian statehood and its national ideology as a direct threat to Russian imperialism. Putin’s beliefs are resolute, and he plans to persist in his quest for control over Ukraine indefinitely, much like the Russian Tsars who preceded him.

Zelensky as a modern-day Hetman

Like the heroic Hetmans of old, President Zelensky shoulders the weighty responsibility of safeguarding Ukraine from a formidable and well-equipped adversary.

While history recounts the failures of past Hetmans in defending against Russian aggression, Zelensky stands out as a beacon of success. He has accomplished what his predecessors could not, rallying the Ukrainian population to bravely withstand the Russian onslaught. Furthermore, he has skilfully garnered the support of international alliances, who now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine in its defence.

Zelensky’s recent visit to Britain has yielded promising outcomes, as he has secured a crucial offer of air-defence missiles and attack drones.

Additionally, his visionary proposal to form an international coalition of nations, joined in the cause of fortifying Ukraine’s air defence with NATO jet fighters, is gaining significant traction and now the US has even agreed to allow allies to train Ukrainian pilots on how to operate F-16 fighter jets. Where previous Hetmans failed in rallying international support and securing the necessary alliances for Ukraine’s fight, Zelensky has flourished.

Russia has repeated the events of the Baturyn massacre, raping, pillaging, and looting their way through Ukraine with infamous incidents such as in Bucha and Mariupol. This time though, the Russian army was not able to destroy Ukraine’s independence. Instead, the Ukrainian people have rallied together with unwavering determination, fighting back against the invaders with unprecedented force and unity, all in the name of freedom.

Zelensky’s leadership style has been characterised by a sense of unity and national pride, reflecting the values of the Hetmanate period when Ukrainians were united in their struggle for independence. His emphasis on the importance of Ukraine’s cultural heritage and identity is reminiscent of the Hetman’s role as a protector of Ukrainian traditions and customs.

In many ways, Zelensky’s leadership during the 2022 invasion can be seen as a modern-day embodiment of the Hetman’s role in defending Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty.

Zelensky’s powerful statement, “I need ammunition, not a ride,” will undoubtedly be etched in the annals of history, standing alongside the resounding declarations of esteemed wartime leaders like Churchill’s “we shall fight them on the beaches” and Lincoln’s “last full measure of devotion.” 

Amidst this crucial juncture in Ukraine’s history, he stands strong as Ukraine’s modern-day Hetman. Perhaps, at long last, Shevchenko’s cherished ideal of Ukraine’s leader has come to fruition.

Photo: Volodymyr Zelensky official Facebook page.

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