Elections in Ukraine: Who Will Be the Worst President for Russia?

Sociologically, the success of Zelensky in the first round fits well with the social fatigue of the “old elites” observed in many other European countries and the disappointment of citizens in the current political system. Therefore, any bright new face and the use of populist mechanisms in a pre-election strategy leads to the outsider, initially, quickly gaining support and achieving success. This approach worked well in Ukraine.

On Sunday, March 31, the first round of presidential elections in Ukraine took place. Its results, on the one hand, were not unexpected, and corresponded to the opinion polls. The winner of the first round was comic actor Vladimir Zelensky, who garnered more than 30% of the vote. He and current President Petro Poroshenko, who won 16% of the vote, will continue to the second round. Yulia Tymoshenko, who received about 13% of the vote, placed third. In the fourth place, with 11%, was Yuriy Boyko, the most successful current candidate to have served in the Yanukovych administration. Poroshenko had the advantage in a number of western regions of Ukraine, while Boyko was popular in the government-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Zelensky was popular throughout the rest of the country. The US Ambassador to Ukraine made an appearance at one of the polling stations to help ensure that everything was in order.

The night following the elections was also surprisingly tranquil. Fears of new Maidan demonstrations and riots instigated by supporters of either Yulia Tymoshenko or the nationalists were allayed. Although the headquarters of Tymoshenko made a statement alleging a false ballot count, it did not take action during the night after the elections. Perhaps the only thing that added intrigue to the first ballot was what was described as an “exit poll war”. In a slightly camouflaged form, exit poll results appeared online and in the media even before the end of the voting on March 31. Conflicting claims insisted that Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, and Boiko had ranked second, depending on the political preferences of the authors of these exit polls.
Ukraine, America and the ‘Island of Russia’
Andrei Tsygankov
The presidential election in Ukraine, as well as the no-less-important parliamentary election that will follow it, are very significant in the context of how the rival powers understand them. For the West, which is guided by the logic of the expansion of its sphere of influence, Ukraine serves as the most important means to deter Russia and undermine its sense of pride and independence.

On the other hand, the reaction to the results from a number of radical supporters of Petro Poroshenko was very acute. In their social media, extremely harsh accusations were addressed to the Ukrainian people, who, it was claimed, could not rise above the “first stage of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” (Oleg Sharp), which only demonstrated “a conditioned reflex" according to Pavlov’s method. Primitive needs. To write, to crap, to eat” (Alexey Petrov), that “these are not citizens, but the population” (Taras Berezovets), etc. Ayder Muzhdabayev, a former Russian journalist who moved to Ukraine, even predicted armed resistance and a new civil war in the event that Poroshenko loses the second round: “We have no chance to defeat them in the second round. Betrayal will win with a probability of 100%. I just talked to a combat commander. Apparently, they have to shoot. When they shoot you in the back, there is no other way out. This means a new revolution, the victory of the patriots, but at the same time the loss of another 6-8 regions.” Thus, the silence of the night after the first round may turn out to be the silence before a surge of violence in the coming weeks.

Sociologically, the success of Zelensky in the first round fits well with the social fatigue of the “old elites” observed in many other European countries and the disappointment of citizens in the current political system. Therefore, any bright new face and the use of populist mechanisms in a pre-election strategy leads to the outsider, initially, quickly gaining support and achieving success. This approach worked well in Ukraine.

What does the outcome of the first round of presidential elections in Ukraine mean for Russia? On the one hand, the so-called “pro-Russian” candidates (Boyko and Vilkul) failed. Whether they are in fact pro-Russian, however, is a separate question. One way or another, their base of support did not extend beyond the two war-torn eastern regions, Donetsk and Lugansk. This only underscored the social isolation of these regions from the rest of the country.

At the same time, all the other leading candidates demonstrated, to one degree or another, their commitment to distance themselves from Russia and to preserve the anti-Russian course. Therefore, the question of what the Ukrainian elections mean for Russia can be more precisely formulated like this: who will be a worse president for Russia, Poroshenko or Zelensky? Which candidate should Russia be rooting against? There are several ways in which the two candidates diverge.

On the one hand, it is obvious that the Russian-Ukrainian relations under Poroshenko found themselves at an impasse, from which there is no way out. We see zugzwang in the Donbas, a worsening situation in the Kerch Strait, and much more. From this point of view, there are no hopes for softer relations while Poroshenko remains in power. 

Therefore, according to this logic, any new person to become president of Ukraine is more desirable for Russia, because “he will not be worse,” and there is a chance to improve the relationship between the countries. This logic has resounded in the Russian media and on Russian television talk shows throughout the election.

On the other hand, the key strategy of Petro Poroshenko has been to “contain” Russia, and to stimulate international sanctions pressure against Russia. For this, diplomacy, provocations, etc. were used. In a number of cases, this strategy bore fruit. But what Poroshenko did not exactly do (or did to an extremely minimal degree and ineffectively) was to try to change the Russian political regime from the inside: through the formation of a broad, Ukrainian-style protest movement in Russia. Moreover, the recent scandals with Ukroboronprom, coal supplies, and many other examples show that there is a large network of shadow ties between the elites of Poroshenko’s Ukraine and Russia, to the mutual advantage of both parties.

The situation with Zelensky is fundamentally different. He may be more moderate in his international rhetoric than Poroshenko. However, it was he who openly declared, a few days before the election, that he sees regime change in Russia as being among his tasks as president. Furthermore, he believes the example of his political success in Ukraine can serve as a significant incentive for Russia’s civil society movement (to overthrow the government). Here the situation may acquire a completely different sense of urgency. It’s one thing when you are confronted by a “normal” external opponent, with whom there are also massive shadow ties, as with the Poroshenko regime, but it’s another thing entirely when the new president issues an open challenge to the stability of the Russian government. Here, the notorious “orange” and “swamp” ghosts could have a serious impact on political decision-making. We must say that Poroshenko was by no means a cult figure for the Russian opposition, and was even less well-received by the general public. Zelensky may well become such a figure. His popularity in Russia could serve as a base for this, and his political activity, precisely intended as an “example for Russia” could develop very quickly. A number of Russian opposition supporters, on the night after the first round, expressed precisely these hopes about the victory of Zelensky.

Another important issue is that in 2019, Russia is likely to face difficult negotiations with Ukraine on the conclusion of a new gas contract. At least here we have Germany’s publicly-voiced position that the launch of the Nord Stream-2 should not lead to the abandonment of Ukrainian gas transit. The course of these negotiations under any president of Ukraine would be influenced by the upcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine, with their accompanying surge of anti-Russian rhetoric.

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Pipes
Alexei Grivach
The transit of gas through Ukraine is too sensitive for Russia and Europe, at least ahead of the launch of Nord Stream 2. Until it is completed, the United States will continue to have the opportunity to discredit Russian gas supplies to Europe in order to promote its own LNG on the market.

In the case of Zelensky, one more factor will come into play. Petro Poroshenko, in the evening after the first round of elections, directly called Zelensky “Kolomoisky’s puppet.” Is it not for us to judge. But it is quite possible to assume that the influence of this oligarch on the situation in Ukraine after the victory of Zelensky may increase greatly. And it cannot be excluded that “to negotiate with Zelensky” may mean “to negotiate with Kolomoisky”.

Here, on the one hand, what resonates for Russian public opinion is the memory of the radical anti-Russian position of Kolomoisky in 2014–15, the formation of Ukraine’s first nationalist battalions, etc. On the other hand, after his emigration from Ukraine, there were leaked rumours of his attempts to establish shady contacts within Russia. On the other hand, after the recent Moscow visit of Yuriy Boyko, one of the well-known figures of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Khodakovsky directly stated in his Telegram channel that a kind of negotiation channel with Russia could be forged with Ihor Kolomoysky through another oligarch, Dmitry Firtash (who sponsors Boyko), and Viktor Medvedchuk to discuss such issues as gas, Donbass, etc. Thereby, it is possible to raise the question of whether a kind of “big deal” between Russia and Kolomoisky could take place (and if it is acceptable) after Zelensky is elected president. There is no direct (or simple) answer.

So, the results of the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections resulted in two options, and uncertainty regarding who could be better (or worse) for Russia: an “old understandable enemy” or a new, unknown person with both pluses and minuses. The second round of elections is in three weeks.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.