This article was originally written by our author Stepan Antonov for “New Cold War: Ukraine and Beyond”. To read the full text, visit their website
For some Ukrainian citizens and observers alike, Volodymyr Zelensky’s resounding victory against the incumbent President Poroshenko in April may have meant that Ukraine would be heading for change. Poroshenko was elected after the demise of Vyktor Yanukovich, who fled the country in disgrace after the “Revolution of Dignity” of 2014. Under Poroshenko’s presidency the core of Ukrainian policy became the severing of all ties with Russia, Ukraine’s largest neighbour, in a pivotal turn towards the European Union and integration into transatlantic institutions.
Poroshenko’s heavy defeat in the elections, where his opponent got 73% of the popular vote in the second round, may have led some to think that the Ukrainian electorate was fed up with the incessant anti-Russian war rhetoric that had become the main feature of Ukrainian public discourse over the least five years. During the last weeks leading to the final vote, Poroshenko’s campaign managers, aware that their candidate was trailing behind by a very wide margin, tried to portray Zelensky as Putin’s candidate, hoping to capitalize on the patriotic electorate. The move, however, did not the produce the hoped for results.
It is true that compared to Poroshenko patriotic rhetoric, Zelensky’s sounded like a more moderate candidate, whose priority would be to end the conflict in the Donbass. Peace in the country was one of the most pressing priorities for many Ukrainians. Also, Zelensky, a former comedian who used to act almost exclusively in Russian, conducted much of his campaign speaking Russian, a language that many Ukrainians, particularly in the South and in the East of the country, regard as their native language and part of their identity. Zelensky appeared to stand, as opposed to Poroshenko, who in public speak almost exclusively Ukrainian (although he is said to speak Russian privately), for a more moderate and fluid version of Ukrainianness, far from the monolingual Ukrainian identity which was represented in the most active elements of the civil society and public discourse.
The new President’s tone, however, has changed since he was inaugurated on 20 May. In his inauguration speech Zelensky received a standing ovation after he declared that: “Our most important task is to reach a ceasefire in the Donbass”. Zelensky doubled down when he added he was ready for everything as long as peace was attained. “I am ready to lose ratings, I am ready to lose this post”, Zelensky said. For many Ukrainian professional experts and members of the intelligentsia, who had largely backed Poroshenko, Zelensky’s peace-at-all-costs stance amounted to nothing less than capitulation towards the bete noire Putin.
Only a few days into a new job, though, Zelensky’s rhetoric appeared to have changed significantly. In his first official trip abroad as the head of state on 5 June, the new President visited the European capital Brussels, where he met with Donald Tusk, the President of the Council of Europe, Juncker, the head of the European Commission and Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, which has its European headquarter in Belgium. Zelensky essentially repeated word for word a previous speech by the former President Poroshenko, speaking of Russian aggression and attacking Russian imperialism and authoritarianism. The speech in fact was so similar that Zelensky was accused of having plagiarized it and former President Poroshenko was “pleased”.
“NATO is primarily about security, security of the country, we will do everything”, Zelensky said in a joint press conference with Stoltenberg. “NATO enlargement has been a great success, it has helped spread democracy, the rule of law, peace and stability across Europe”, the Secretary General added.
The president of Ukraine has vast powers, but he is not governing alone. Zelensky, without doubt, came under pressure for specific advocacy groups within Ukraine. Only a few days after the inauguration, a group a civil society organizations launched a heartfelt appeal to the new President. “We remain politically neutral, but are deeply concerned about the first executive decisions taken by the newly-elected President. Unfortunately, they demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the threats and challenges facing our country”, the statement said. “As civil society activists, we present a list of red lines not to be crossed. Should the President cross these red lines, such actions will inevitably lead to political instability in our country and the deterioration of international relations”. In a country like Ukraine, where since independence 28 years ago power changed as the result of mass demonstrations at least 2 times, the threat of “political instability” is not to be underestimated. Among the demands of the activists were crucial issues like for example, the prohibition of “separate negotiations, without the participation of Ukraine’s Western partners, with the Russian Federation, members of the “occupation authorities” and their “armed groups and gangs”. Ukraine’s established course towards Europe and NATO was not to be questioned either: “delaying, sabotaging, or rejecting the strategic course for EU and NATO membership” would be tantamount to betrayal and was among one of the first items in a long list of demands.
The list of signatories included many well-known names like for example: “Ukraine Crisis Media Center”, an organization founded by George Soros, “ Euromaidan Press” and “StopFake”, a project of the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kiev that receives grants from the US State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy.
In his inauguration speech Zelensky quoted another famous actor turned president, without actually namely him: “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem”. Zelensky may have been an outsider and his willingness to break up with the old ways of the Ukrainian establishment may have granted him the landslide victory that none of the Western experts would have considered even remotely likely (Ukraine had firmly embarked on a Western course, so nothing could possibly be wrong). However, the new President will have to work within the established frame of Ukrainian nominally independent institutions, pressure groups and NGOs that are tied to and heavily reliant on European and Transatlantic established structures. Peace in Ukraine may be a noble goal and a priority for the vast majority of Ukrainian citizens, but the will of the people often ends where the larger goals and priorities of supernational structures come into play.
Within this framework, Zelensky’s space for maneuvering may be very limited. Petro Poroshenko had of course a very different profile, but in 2014, when he campaigned for election after the Maidan, he presented himself as the “candidate of peace”, promising to end the rebellion in the East “within hours”, and indeed, compared to the rhetoric of other candidates at the time, like for example Julia Tymoshenko, he sounded like a moderate. Later in his presidency Poroshenko fully embraced the party of war, where compromise automatically equals appeasement.
Stepan Antonov has written for East and West since 2016. He is the author of “Battle for Ukraine: Ukraine between Russia and the West”. This is his first book.