Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Stavridis: Zelenskyy beats Putin on military calculus

·4 min read

As Russia's war against Ukraine grinds on into its third brutal month, it is clearly a battle not only of blood and treasure in the fields, cities and skies of Ukraine, but also a very personal contest between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

They are locked into a battle of wills, and each has made a calculation about the level of risk they and their nations are willing to absorb.

After a lifetime of thinking about risk in the context of military operations, I believe that Zelenskyy has demonstrated a far better grasp on the crucial calculus of risk and reward. What can we learn from his performance about the decisions we need to make in our own lives?

Zelenskyy went into this war knowing what he'd risk

To understand risk and decision, you must accomplish something relatively straightforward: knowing what you value. The time to figure out what you value is not when the storm is blowing at full strength, like mad King Lear finally did. The time to understand what you value is when the sun is still shining before the crisis descends. And most of all, you need to answer to the question, “For what are you willing, quite literally, to risk it all?”

Don’t answer too quickly.

If I’ve learned anything along the long voyage of my life, it is that you really don’t know what you value until you are faced with a very stark choice about losing it. That applies to a job, a friend, a spouse, a nation, an idea or anything else that really matters to you. Zelenskyy went into this war clearly knowing exactly what he valued.

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Today, we watch a brave and free people in Ukraine make those brutally stark choices every day. Faced with a ruthless, implacable and immoral foe in the Russian dictator, the Ukrainian people have made the hardest of choices to stand and defend their nation. Zelenskyy is the personification of their will and spirit, the true center of gravity of this war.

When Ukrainian citizens go to fight on what literally have become the front lines of freedom, they must pause and look over their shoulder. Behind them they see their children, spouses, parents and elders. Their cities, many shattered by indiscriminate and illegal bombing. Their civilization and their language. They know what they value.

Zelenskyy, Putin mark 'Victory Day'
Zelenskyy, Putin mark 'Victory Day'

A year or so ago, most of them would not have contemplated standing on those front lines, quite literally risking it all. But in life, everything can change forever in an instant. It can happen to you and with little or no warning, in a medical emergency, a mass shooting, a crisis at work, or for those who have chosen a military career in a combat deployment. When it happens, the choices are narrow.

Time seems to slow down and speed up simultaneously, and the moment is full of risk. Be ready. Think of those ordinary Ukrainians, not unlike their heroic president, suddenly thrust into making choices about risk and doubling down on what truly matters to each of them. Know what you value before the moment of crisis.

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Ukrainian leader shows inner knowledge, confidence

The second point is also deceptively simple: Know yourself. The ancient Greeks carved those words, which they believed lay at the heart of a life well lived, on the high walls of the great temple of Apollo at Delphi. We all think we know who we are, but until a moment of real risk comes, we really don’t know what lies in the deepest part of our hearts.

Understanding yourself truly is the work of a lifetime, and Zelenskyy has shown us that kind of vital inner knowledge and confidence. Every life and career is a string of both successes and failures, but the common thread is the resilience to continue the voyage. Zelenskyy seems to have fully inculcated this level of self-knowledge, from the moment he shed his suits and ties and donned military-green garb for the duration for the war.

Often, the greatest rewards of our lives stem from those moments of the greatest risk. Napoleon said, "A leader is a dealer in hope." Zelenskyy is very much that kind of leader. Like him, we should all strive to be the kind of person who knows what we value and who understands who we are, long before the crisis comes.

Admiral James Stavridis
Admiral James Stavridis

Retired Adm. James Stavridis was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO. This essay is adapted from his graduation address to the class of 2022 at The Citadel. His twelfth book is “To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision.”  

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine war: Zelenskyy beats Vladimir Putin on inner calculus