It seems logical that, given the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military frequently plays a significant role in political life. The presidential election of 2019 is, therefore, no exception. Almost all major candidates have to some degree used themes of war and the military in their campaigns. Pro-Russian candidates were focused more on plans toward peace in order to juxtapose themselves against the hawkish (in their opinion) policies of incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. For example, candidate Oleksandr Vilkul (a former member of previous president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions) promised peace in 100 days (Vilkul.ua, February 2019). Another candidate, former prime minister and member of parliament Yulia Tymoshenko, who actually routinely avoids any parliamentary votes related to security and defense, has invited groups of soldiers to her promotional events. The soldiers were identified as the “famous cyborgs” (the unofficial name for the defenders of Donetsk airport) and they, in turn, referred to Tymoshenko as “the one and only political cyborg” (YouTube, January 22). These campaign rallies ultimately attracted widespread condemnation of Tymoshenko when it became clear that almost none of the featured soldiers had any actual connection to the fighting at Donetsk airport (Focus, January 23)
At the same time, President Poroshenko has chosen to highlight the military as part of his campaign motto—“Army, Language, Faith”—even before the official start of his reelection bid (YouTube, September 5, 2018). Poroshenko has long portrayed himself as responsible for rebuilding the country’s national security and defense organizations. And he relies on these institutions as generators of loyal voters. The Ukrainian president’s position is to achieve peace through both diplomatic (creation of an anti-Russian international coalition) and military (rebuilding and reforming the Armed Forces, joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) victory (Channel 24, April 1, 2019).
However, his opponents often accuse Poroshenko of warmongering in order to influence the elections. Indeed, that charge was widely discussed after the Russian aggression around the Kerch Strait last November, as a result of which Poroshenko declared martial law in Ukraine (see EDM, December 12, 2018). Even warnings from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) about the growing concentration of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border were seen by many as a ploy originating inside Poroshenko’s reelection campaign. Russian media and authorities have often portray him as a war president, claiming that Russia is unable to negotiate with him and needs another interlocutor in Kyiv (Interfax, March 19, 2019). That could explain why some Ukrainian army personnel on the frontlines received anti-Poroshenko text messages earlier this year (Facebook/yuri.biriukov, March 11), in what may have been part of Russia’s information campaign to influence the elections. Several days later, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM) noted in its report that observers spotted a Russian Leer-3 Electronic Warfare (EW) station over Ukrainian territory. The Leer 3 is designed to control GSM cellular communications (Osce.org, April 4). Other related activities have included fake news reports about canceling or prohibiting elections in Donetsk Region (Facebook/yuri.biriukov, March 11).
Poroshenko frequently visits military units, even on the Donbas frontline, in the so-called Joint Forces Operation zone. And he pays special attention to the defense industry and historical aspects of the Ukrainian military. Since the official start of the election campaign in Ukraine, this tendency has strengthened. President Poroshenko announced a boost to military salaries just two weeks prior to the first round of elections, which were held on March 31 (Twitter/TheBankova, March 15). Before that, he met with personnel of the 95th Airborne Brigade (Twitter/TheBankova, March 11) and visited the frontline to congratulate the Azov Regiment on National Volunteer Day (Twitter/TheBankova, March 15). A week later, Poroshenko used the professional days of the Security Service of Ukraine and National Guard of Ukraine as part of his campaign (President.gov.ua, March 22, 26). He also took part in an official ceremony in the Khmelnitskyi region, in which he handed over new military equipment and arms (including the recently purchased Turkish strike drones Bayraktar TB2—see EDM, February 6) to local military units (President.gov.ua, March 20). Then, Poroshenko continued with an appearance on Ukrainian military radio station Army FM (President.gov.ua, March 21). Indeed, during most of his trips to Ukrainian regions in March, Poroshenko paid more attention to security and defense than other issues (President.gov.ua, March 19).
Overall, Poroshenko enjoys strong support within the Armed Forces, particularly among the top brass. Back in January 2019, the head of the AFU General Staff, General Viktor Muzhenko, without naming Poroshenko explicitly, publicly voiced his support for the current government on Facebook, even citing the president’s official campaign motto (Facebook/v.muzhenko, January 29). In addition, several other AFU military units echoed Muzhenko’s words (Facebook/93ombr, January 30).
Poroshenko’s heavy political reliance on support from the military and defense industry helps explain why a journalistic investigation into corruption involving the state-owned concern Ukroboronprom, released just a month before the elections, had such a negative impact on Poroshenko’s ratings (YouTube, February 25; see EDM, February 28). Despite the fact that the investigative reporting ultimately failed to provide much in the way of credible evidence to directly link the president to the corrupt schemes, news of the scandal nevertheless further spoiled the image of Poroshenko as the leader who revived the AFU and Ukraine’s defense industry.
The corruption scandal was likely one of the reasons why Poroshenko appeared to do relatively poorly in the first round among military and security services voters stationed on the frontline (Cvk.gov.ua, April 4). The incumbent won in only 40 out of the 79 polling places specially set up for Armed Forces personnel serving in Donbas, with 12,836 troops in the warzone casting ballots for Poroshenko, while almost the same amount, 12,423, voting for the ultimately victorious Volodymyr Zelensky (Kyiv Post, Facebook/butusov.yuri, April 3). Special advisor to the Ukrainian president, Yuri Biryukov, has tried to minimize this disappointing showing by suggesting that some civilians, and not purely military personnel, had cast their votes at these frontline polling stations (Facebook/yuri.biryukov, April 3).
One way or another, Poroshenko faces a foreboding situation going into the second round, scheduled for April 21. According to the widely reported results of a recent poll by the sociological group Rating, 71 percent of voters expressed their intention to vote for Zelensky, while less than 30 percent support the incumbent (Kyiv Post, April 11). Clearly, more decisive support from military service members and their families will be crucial come election day.