The first two days of July 1942 were quite difficult for Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister as the leader of His Majesty's Government. Two years before, he arrived at this post, during the time when the British Empire was under its greatest existential threat yet. This time however, he was not as concerned about the progress of German and Japanese forces on the countless battle fronts, but rather the events in the British parliament – the House of Commons. A few days before this, a group of MPs submitted a resolution to the parliament which put Churchill’s government under threat of a no confidence vote, due to its role in wartime planning (the group of MPs nevertheless declared there admiration for the armed forces of the British Empire, but not the planning of central government). A discussion of whether the Prime Minister should have a say in British military operations, questions concerning tactical mistakes on the battlefield and many other painful debates ensued after the humiliating fall of Singapore as well as Tobruk in Libya.
This is quite relevant to the events in Ukraine today. The political front was silent in the first weeks of the war, but after the military threat the Russians posed to Kyiv dissapeared (temporaily?), the situation on the political front also changed. Under various war slogans calling for unity echoing from every corner of Ukrainian politics, a growing number of officials have started to politicise this matter. We must consider some important implications here – from one side, criticising the government when officials carry out some action in war is often absurd and unprecedented. From another side, there are those in the president’s team who are aware of this delicacy and would be happy to use this to get rid of potential opposition as such – all this under the slogan of unity.
The question of whether one should criticise the government in the most crucial time (wartime) is indeed quite a delicate matter. Everyone who is even slightly familiar with Ukrainian history, can remember quite well that internal bickering and a lack of unity led to national decline and catastrophe. Historically, Ukranians were enthusiastic upon falling into this trap before realising the consequences. Even if Volodymyr Vynnychenko did not say his infamous ‘Ukraine will either be socialist or none at all’, these words tell a story of the sectarian, tribal and self-destructive manner of one of the leaders of the Ukrainian People’s Republic as well as many other historical figures, fragmented by ideological and party allegiances.
Presidential and parliamentary elections of 2019 were a painful experience for a significant part of Ukrainian society. For some, it was even traumatic. A consequence of this was the subsequent reckless and even blind criticism of the new president and his team. Some of the criticism, especially from Zelensky’s biggest opposition, did not have an end goal of itself, but rather criticism for its own sake. Unfortunately, this was more common than one would have wanted. There are those who now claim (some of them are fairly respected and well-known individuals) that had they been in power now, they would have immediately liberated Kherson, lifted the siege in Azovstal and would already be on their way to take the Kremlin itself. As for those who blame Zelnesky himself for Russia’s invasion, nothing can be said as they are not even political posers but rather the politically ‘incurable’.
However, the forces of destruction can be detected in the government camp as well. The 2019 elections reincarnated the belief that everything is up for grabs after one’s rise to power. After the first weeks of the war (a time when not much was heard about Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s infamous adviser), the president’s administration started to initiate some disturbing decrees. The government removed three opposition channels (Channel 5, Pryamyi and Espresso) seemingly for questioning the actions of government officials in the war. This is unfitting for a country which aims to display its contrast to a facsist Russia. Some government supporters which do not hold any official titles or duties have publicly called for the removal of any opposition and punishment of those who dare criticise the government and the president.
For example, one can consider the possible reasons as to why the Russian forces managed to advance on to Kherson so easily. Why did Kherson fall to the invaders so quickly? Did the local government or other branches of government sabotage the defence of Kherson? This is not just a question about Kherson alone, but about all the other points where the enemy succeeded to advance and eventually led to the tragedy of Mariupol – a place where eternal wounds are still bleeding as we speak. Asking these questions is not betrayal. It is also not a betrayal to investigate the effectiveness of the Ministry of Defence and its work in the past few years. An advanced society deserves a sincere (as far as wartime expediency allows this at least) answer, whatever it may be. However, the only self-criticism we have seen so far was Oleksii Arestovych’s ‘we f*cked it up’. It was also said in such a manner that the blame would fall on the military leadership of the country. Could this be the first sign of a political battle with General Zaluzhny, who is deemed to be ‘too popular’? The worse the communication among top officials, the fewer answers we will be getting. This is cause for concern and raises more questions rather than answers.
Today, Ukraine is an example for the whole world, of what a noble fight for one’s own freedom looks like. Our democracy is one of the main reasons why the West is actively supporting us. It is a ticket to the club of civilised nations. More importantly, by its very existence, Ukraine, its authorities, officials and politicians, owe their gratitude to the Armed Forces and society as a whole, which have been doing everything that is both possible and impossible for three months to prevent our nation from disappearing from the world map. Therefore, the government has no right to silence or discard the complaints of its people.
Such actions are also an impediment to Volodymyr Zelensky himself. Yes, he was a bad president before the war. Quite possibly, he will remain a bad president after it. Nevertheless, he became one of the symbols of Ukrainian resistance. And now, in the time of war, he carries out his role as it should be done. The support of Ukraine by the international community is largely due to Zelensky’s efforts in communication, and his brave decision to stay in Kyiv during the peak of danger. And when George W. Bush calls him ‘the Churchill of our time’ and the New York Times positively analyses this claim to be historically accurate, this is all seen as highly complimentary and not comical at all. This however, does not give Zelensky and his inner circle a carte blanche for any kind of action. This can be explained by the famous saying ‘He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself’. In Ukraine, speaking from experience, we know that the negotiations with dragons are often short.
Let’s come back to Churchill. The vote of no confidence on the 2nd of July 1942 in the House of Commons ended up with a large victory for confidence (in Churchill’s government) with 475 votes against 25. Churchill then led his greatest life goal to its greatest victory. Afterwards, he lost the next election and peacefully retired the Prime Minister’s seat to his successor from the Labour Party, Clement Attlee. This is exactly how democracy works. An advanced society must know the limits of what is allowed in terms of power exercise, even at time of war. The government may start to feel that it has managed to grab God by his beard (this refers to a Ukrainian idiom where one encounters enough success to feel like he ascended to a state of immunity that no one can impede on). Such a feeling for Zelensky, fueled by the notion that ‘the war will excuse anything’, can be seen as a tactical hallucination, which must be treated immediately. After all, it is for a reason that the United Kingdom is one of the best examples of various traditions, democracy and success. Setting doubt over Churchill’s leadership (and it was not the only one during the war) did not stop him from leading the nation to victory, a victory that not many believed in, back in the summer of 1940, including himself.