Zelensky’s victory in Ukraine is no victory for Russia


2019-04-26

While Russia spared no effort to intervene in Ukraine’s presidential election campaign, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky’s landslide victory is primarily a product of independent anti-establishment sentiment within the country. Given structural constraints including popular attitudes and the interests of elite factions behind Zelensky, Ukraine is highly likely to remain on a pro-Western course. Nonetheless, there is a risk of strategic mistakes due to the likelihood that Zelensky’s presidency will be marred by crises and instability.

Some 73% of voters cast their ballot for Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine’s presidential election runoff on 21 April. Zelensky, a comic actor and television producer, shot to national fame with a TV show, Servant of the People, in which he plays a teacher who becomes president of Ukraine. In line with the satirical message of the series, in real life he campaigned on an anti-establishment platform, presenting himself as the antithesis of Ukraine’s political elite.

That strategy worked. Ukrainian voters are deeply distrustful of politicians, having seen their hopes for the elimination of corruption, rising living standards, and integration with the West betrayed time and again since independence in 1991. Incumbent president Petro Poroshenko’s failure to deliver tangible results on the fight against corruption meant that the people who ousted his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, for similar reasons in 2014, were now again ready to vote in protest. That protest vote is what Zelensky, the outsider, scooped up.

Instability likely

The president-elect’s strength may prove short-lived, however. First, his broad-church base is prone to fragmentation in the wake of divisive decisions, making his popularity fragile. Second, parliament, where the Petro Poroshenko Bloc remains the largest force, will likely seek to block all of Zelensky’s policy initiatives to create a perception of inaction, weakening his chances in the parliamentary election scheduled for October. Third, the interests of two major groups – media and banking mogul Ihor Kolomoisky’s associates and reform-minded technocrats – within Zelensky’s team are likely to clash in the medium term.

The parliamentary election will no doubt be decisive in determining the scope of Zelensky’s mandate (as well as revealing his policy positions, which to date remain largely unclear). However, current polling suggests that the fragmentation of Ukraine’s parliament will only increase. A fragmented parliament yields unstable government; crises may well remain common further into Zelensky’s presidency. 

Russia’s hard power is up, ‘sharp power’ is down

Russia’s strategic imperatives remain unchanged. The country seeks to prevent Ukraine’s integration into Western political and military structures, at best having Kyiv support Russian foreign policy (in a likely manner to some former Soviet republics in Central Asia), at worst keeping it as a neutral buffer zone.

Russia’s array of external means of exerting influence over Ukraine has widened since 2014.

  • Russia controls the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist ‘people’s republics’ in Eastern Ukraine. Through modulating the intensity of fighting along the frontline it can put continuous pressure on Ukrainian authorities.
  • Russian naval forces dominate the Black Sea, including its northern offshoot, the Azov Sea. Russia can put pressure on Ukraine by imposing a de facto blockade on its Azov ports, as it did in 2018. It can also attempt to provoke a military skirmish, for example by repeating its November 2018 capture of a set of Ukrainian navy ships.
  • Given the persistence of a number of Soviet-era supply chains, particularly in heavy industry, as well as many influential Ukrainian oligarchs’ Russian business interests, Russia can put pressure on the country through trade embargoes. The effectiveness of such embargoes has declined sharply over the past years, however, as Ukraine reoriented its trade away from Russia, notably becoming largely independent of Russia for energy.
  • Russian intelligence assets likely remain in place in all spheres of Ukrainian public life.

Importantly, Russia’s internal means of exerting influence – through ‘sharp power’ – have shrunk considerably since 2014.

  • Russian-sponsored disinformation has retreated to social media. Ukraine has banned Russian TV networks and a number of popular Russian websites. Russia operates a vast number of bots on social media spreading anti-elite and, to a lesser extent, anti-Western messages. But, while we have no reliable data on the effectiveness of this campaign, its reach is minuscule when compared to television.
  • Cyberattacks against critical infrastructure in Ukraine, presumably by Russian actors, have also been frequent in the pre-election period. According to the SBU, Ukraine’s security service, the Central Election Commission was subject to daily attacks. However, Ukraine has developed a degree of resilience to such attacks since the devastating harm done by the Petya ransomware in 2017 (an attack that was attributed to Russia by several countries including Ukraine, the US, and the UK).
  • Russia retains proxies in Ukrainian politics and the economy, but their influence has decreased in recent years. The fragmentation and contraction of Ukraine’s pro-Russian parties, in particular, signals that Russia-friendly political entrepreneurs are competing for a shrinking electorate. Pro-Russian oligarchs have retained some influence in parliament and hold on to some important assets, but their pro-Western competitors have largely pushed them out of the higher echelons of power.

Overall, the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas have created a broad anti-Russian consensus in Ukraine. ‘Sharp power’ moves, in turn, have bolstered Ukrainians’ and their institutions’ resilience. In exchange for its hard-power trump card in the Donbas, Russia has lost much of its influence over Ukrainians’ minds.

No strategic shift on the horizon

Ukraine’s Western strategic orientation is unlikely to be at risk under Zelensky’s presidency. The president-elect’s platform is markedly pro-Western, supporting EU and NATO membership (following a referendum) and refusing to make any territorial concessions to Russia.

Other, structural factors also make a strategic shift improbable:

  • Although Zelensky’s base is diverse, Ukraine’s broad anti-Russian consensus has a hold there, too. Only 6% of his voters would like to see a military alliance with Russia, according to a recent poll. His core supporters – a young, urban, anti-establishment electorate – have strongly pro-Western views.
  • Pressure groups behind Zelensky have no interest in a shift. Both Kolomoisky’s circle and that of reformist technocrats support the Western vector of development.
  • Ukraine’s macroeconomic stability depends on cooperation with the IMF and the EU. Even if Russia offered help, a heavy economic downturn, potentially with a default on external debt, would likely follow a turn away from the West.

Dangers of inexperience and instability

Russia is overwhelmingly likely to use its levers on Ukraine – its Donbas proxies, its Black Sea dominance, and trade embargoes – to test the new administration. Its move this week to hand out Russian passports to the residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist territories may portend an escalation.

There are concerns that a lack of experience could over the longer-term lead Zelensky’s team to make concessions at peace negotiations that hand Russia greater influence over the country. Issues to watch in particular are: control over the Russian border; a constitutionally guaranteed ‘special status’ for the Donbas (which Zelensky has rejected); elections in the Donbas giving separatist authorities a legitimacy boost and increasing their sway over Kyiv; and amnesty for separatist fighters. However, the relatively large reach of anti-Russian hardliners – in parliament, civil society, and the media – moderates the risk of such mistakes. Moreover, the president-elect’s own inexperience may yet be counterbalanced with the right cadre choices. Appointments to key positions such as that of the foreign minister, the defence minister, and the secretary of the National Security and Defence Council will serve as important signals for the markets and Ukraine’s international partners.

Yet even with strong diplomatic leadership, internal instability is likely to weaken Ukraine’s position vis-à-vis Russia. A prolonged standoff between parliament and the president, potentially ending in a snap election, or a constitutional reform limiting the president’s power, passed with the support of a broad coalition of oligarchs and parliamentarians is possible. Such scenarios would bolster Russia’s discourse of ‘state failure’ with regard to Ukraine. They would also divert attention from the conflict in the Donbas and the structural reforms needed to make the country competitive in the long-term.

András Radnóti 

András Radnóti is Partner and Head of Country Risk at Sastre Consulting, a political and business intelligence consultancy focused on Central and Eastern Europe. He has also contributed to the output of The Economist Intelligence Unit and Oxford Analytica since 2016. His areas of expertise are Ukrainian and CEE politics and Russian foreign policy.

András completed his undergraduate degree in European Studies and Modern Languages at the University of Bath and obtained an MSc in International Relations at the London School of Economics (LSE). He is currently enrolled in a PhD programme at the Central European University (CEU).

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