Ukraine’s New President Will Be a Challenge for the West, Too

There are those who see the electoral defeat of Poroshenko as a defeat for the West’s whole post-Euro-Maidan policy in Ukraine. But Mary Dejevsky believes that an election won by a complete outsider and a sitting president who accepts defeat are surely developments fully in line with the values the EU says it represents. 

Since Volodymyr Zelensky’s landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential election, much speculation, both inside and outside Ukraine, has focused on what this might mean for Russia. And it is true that relations with Russia became an electoral issue.

Zelensky said early in his campaign that he favoured direct talks with Moscow about the Donbass – an intention he played down after it was condemned by his opponents as unpatriotic. This theme then reappeared in posters put out by the sitting President, Petro Poroshenko, which showed him face to face, not with Zelensky, but with Vladimir Putin – the message being that Zelensky was essentially a Russian tool.

In the event, though, more than 70 per cent of those who voted – from a turn-out of 62 per cent - either rejected that message or considered other aspects of Zelensky’s candidacy more important. This seemed to reinforce the findings of a poll conducted jointly by the Levada Centre in Moscow and the Kiev Institute of Sociology earlier in the year which showed more than 57 per cent of Ukrainians having a positive attitude towards Russia –sharply up from 30 per cent in 2015. An even greater proportion said they were favourably disposed towards Russians.

All this will be tested in the coming months. But the extent to which the political and media spotlight since the election has been on Russia, and the possible challenge this new, young and obviously popular leader might present to the Kremlin, has tended to obscure something else. Zelinskiy’s victory could pose almost as great a challenge to the West, and especially to the European Union.

Zelensky the Victor: Hopes and Reality
Artyom Kureev
The elections to the Rada will revolve around the policies Zelensky implements during the first stage of his tenure in office, if he wants to control the country. What does he need for this? First, he must portray himself as a fighter for justice – that is, by all means, initiating proceedings against some of the most corrupt officials, and punishing those responsible for total theft in the armed forces.

Mercifully, there seems to have been no outside interference in this election from either east or west – which makes it almost unique in post-Soviet elections in Ukraine. But this does not mean that outsiders had no view. Early in the campaign, official Western sentiment favoured the re-election of Petro Poroshenko, and there was a cautious assumption that he would win.

As the campaign progressed, however, and Zelensky soared into the lead, this started to change. Before the first round of voting, there were unconfirmed reports that the United States had dropped what had been seen as its tacit support for Poroshenko’s re-election, apparently reflecting concerns that Poroshenko might not even get through to the run-off.

In US and European diplomatic and business circles, however, there still seemed to be a belief that if Poroshenko did reach the run-off, he could win, and – on balance – that this would be the preferable outcome. On the one hand, it was thought that his patriotic message of “Army, Language, Faith” would be hard to beat; on the other, that continuity – even continuity of a rather slow-moving kind - was preferable to the prospect of sudden and unpredictable change. This view seemed to be shared by Ukrainians voting from abroad, who constituted one of only three groups – the other two being Ukraine’s military and voters in the furthest western region of Lviv - to give Poroshenko a majority.

And the reality is not only that Poroshenko had been the West’s favoured candidate in 2014 after all the turbulence of the Euro-Maidan, but that he stood strongly for Ukraine’s pro-Western orientation. Against the odds, as it seemed when he took office, he had managed to preside over five years of relative stability, and the US and the EU had found a way of operating in Ukraine under his presidency.

For the most part, Poroshenko did not spring surprises. He had managed to prevent the armed conflict in the east from spreading, and while he had failed to raise living standards significantly or reduce corruption, it was stagnation, rather than instability or disasters that had defined his time in power.

Behind that, however, lay an enormous amount of Western help, whose scale has received little publicity. From Nato, largely from the United States and the UK, had come extensive assistance with military training and equipment, which had culminated last year in President Trump’s decision to supply Javelin missiles to Kyiv – something Barack Obama had refused to do, despite Poroshenko’s appeals. The EU had also managed to maintain a united stance on Crimea and conditions for ending the war in Ukraine’s east.

Election in Ukraine: Don’t Expect Warming in Relations with Russia
Mikhail Pogrebinsky
From the presidential election in Ukraine, one should not expect a significant warming in Russian-Ukrainian relations, writes Valdai Club expert Mikhail Pogrebinsky, Director of the Kiev Centre for Political Studies and Conflictology.


At least as significant has been financial help, mostly from the IMF, as well as administrative and technical assistance, chiefly from the EU. EU staff and EU-funded experts are embedded in many of Ukraine’s government departments with a view to bringing its administrative and judicial standards into line with those of the EU. The goal has not been primarily to accelerate Ukraine’s EU accession – Brussels recognises that this will take a very long time if it happens at all, and the present mood of the EU does not support further enlargement. The fact is, though, that five years after Euro-Maidan, the EU and Nato are now both deeply entrenched in Ukraine and its institutions. Will that continue?

There are those who see the electoral defeat of Poroshenko as a defeat for the West’s whole post-Euro-Maidan policy in Ukraine. I would not go that far. An election won by a complete outsider and a sitting president who accepts defeat are surely developments fully in line with the values the EU says it represents. Nor, it seems to me, was Poroshenko’s power dependent on Western largesse; it was rather the other way around. Poroshenko accommodated Western involvement in the belief that it benefited Ukraine and would help turn it irrevocably towards the West.

Whoever benefited, however, and wherever the advantage lay, this has been a very cosy relationship – which is why the election of a new President in Ukraine, who is very much an unknown quantity, could pose at least as much of a challenge for the West as it does for Russia. Some of that caution was reflected in the EU countries’ messages of congratulations which seemed less ecstatic than might have been expected.

It is true that during the campaign there seemed little difference between Zelensky’s views and Poroshenko’s about where Ukraine’s long-term future lies - in the EU and maybe in Nato. At the same time, however, Zelensky appeared more realistic about Ukraine’s position straddling east and west and the complexities this brings. He is bilingual, but his first language is Russian, and the popular TV series where he plays a fictional president, is filmed largely in Russian, and he switched easily between the two languages during the campaign. Interestingly, neither his use of Russian nor his Jewish background became liabilities during the campaign.

If there is a change, even if it is only one of emphasis, this could require some adjustment of thinking in Washington and Brussels. What if, for instance, Zelensky were to regard some of the conditions on Western assistance as unacceptably compromising Ukraine’s sovereignty? What if his ideas about ending the war in the east were to conflict with the EU’s current position? After five years of relative stability in the West’s relations with Ukraine, Zelensky takes office with a huge mandate. The challenge he presents is not only, or mainly, to Moscow. It is to Ukraine’s friends in the West, too.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.