Kremlin Sees New Window of Opportunity in Ukraine After Poroshenko’s Massive Electoral Loss

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 59

Petro Poroshenko (L) and Volodymyr Zelensky (Source: The Times of Israel)

On March 31, 2019, the authorities released official results for the first-round of the Ukrainian presidential election. The incumbent, President Petro Poroshenko, came in second place with almost 16 percent of the vote, while the frontrunner, popular satirist/comedian/media manager Volodymyr Zelensky, received over 30 percent. During the three weeks leading up to the decisive runoff on April 21, 2019, Poroshenko attempted to close the gap. He campaigned primarily on a patriotic agenda, promoting his achievements in resisting Russia and President Vladimir Putin, building up the Ukrainian military, negotiating a visa-free travel regime with the European Union, and achieving mild economic growth of over 2 percent last year. Poroshenko did indeed mobilize his support base, but not nearly enough to overcome his opponent. Voter turnout on April 21 was over 61 percent—quite high for a runoff. But Poroshenko was soundly defeated, receiving less than 25 percent of votes, while Zelensky garnered over 73 percent (Interfax, April 23).
Poroshenko was elected president in May 2014, winning outright in the first round, with almost 55 percent of the vote, compared to under 13 percent for the runner-up, veteran Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko (Vedomosti, April 23). If a direct comparison of their first round results can be considered an accurate assessment, Poroshenko in 2014 would seem to have been more popular overall than Zelensky is today.
Under the present Ukrainian constitution, the head of state has limited political powers, mostly in the realms of defense, national security and foreign policy. A ruling coalition in the Supreme Rada (Ukrainian parliament) appoints the cabinet, and most presidential decisions and decrees must be underwritten by the cabinet or the Rada. In 2014, Poroshenko managed to form a friendly cabinet and control the unruly Rada, assuming much more effective power than the letter of the Ukrainian constitution envisages. But Zelensky will not inherit this power automatically. Zelensky won a spectacular landslide on April 21, riding a wave of public discontent in a country distressed by poverty, corruption, government mismanagement and unending hostilities with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. Zelensky ran a highly efficient, non-orthodox election campaign by avoiding personal commitment to a specific political program or platform, avoiding inquisitive journalists, promising change and “giving power back to the people.” Zelensky toured Ukraine, performing mass entertainment shows instead of holding traditional political rallies, often asking the public to buy tickets to see the performance (, April 22).
Throughout his campaign, Zelensky enjoyed first-class media support on Ukrainian television channel 1+1, which is controlled by Ihor Kolomoysky, a powerful Jewish-Ukrainian oligarch. Kolomoysky was initially an ally of Poroshenko, but had a falling out with him in 2015 and is now in self-imposed exile in Israel. He controls a number of other media resources, including the Ukrainian national news agency UNIAN, all of which actively promoted Zelensky during the campaign. Several years ago, the Poroshenko administration nationalized PrivatBank, the biggest Ukrainian private bank, which belonged to Kolomoysky, who demands its return or $2 billion in compensation from the government (see EDM, April 23). The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has reportedly been investigating Kolomoysky’s possible financial criminal activity, though he has denied any wrongdoing (, April 8). After Zelensky won the runoff, the Kyiv district administrative court ruled in favor of Kolomoysky, declaring the nationalization of PrivatBank illegal (, April 23).
The Kremlin wanted Poroshenko to be ousted and the Russian state-controlled media clearly supported Zelensky as a force capable of toppling the incumbent (see EDM, April 4). Reports also surfaced of possible Kremlin-connected financing of the Zelensky campaign (The Insider, April 17). But this alleged alliance turned out to be short-lived. Just before April 21, when Zelensky’s victory and Poroshenko’s trouncing seemed virtually assured, Moscow suddenly imposed severe sanctions on Ukraine, prohibiting the export of oil to that country beginning on June 1, 2019. The sanctions also make the export of coal and oil products conditional on special authorization from the Kremlin for every batch. Ukraine imports some 40 percent of its oil and oil products from Russia and, according to Ukrtatnafta, an abrupt embargo may cause economic chaos and massive disruptions (Interfax, April 18).
After Zelensky’s landslide victory, the Kremlin announced “it is untimely” to send an official congratulations, implying Zelensky must first make unspecified “concrete steps” for Putin to recognize the legitimacy of his election (Vedomosti, April 23). A day later, Putin signed an ukaz (decree) authorizing the mass issuance of Russian passports to residents of the Russian-controlled Donbas. Residents of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics who have been issued local identification cards (passports), will receive Russian passports in exchange for a pledge of allegiance to the Russian Federation. However, legal denunciation of Ukrainian citizenship is not required (Interfax, April 24).
The move was condemned by Poroshenko and the Zelensky transition team as an act of aggression and a step toward Russian annexation of Donbas. It was also denounced by France and Germany as a violation of the Minsk peace accords. Putin publicly defended the mass issuing of Russian passports as “a humanitarian act.” He never publicly mentioned Zelensky by name, but called on “the new [Ukrainian] authorities” to understand the “total fiasco” of Poroshenko and his policies. According to Putin, “Russia is ready to renew relations with Kyiv,” but will not make any advances. He further asserted, “We will assess [the new officials’] first steps whether they will act in the interests of their people [or not]” (Interfax, April 25).
In general, when Putin fails to publicly mention someone by name, it usually signals his outright disgust and disapproval. In fact, it was reported that the Kremlin ordered Russian state media to stop praising Zelensky or even mention him too much after his victory (, April 24). If Putin sees Zelensky as a Kolomoysky protégé and a pro-Western figure, he may consider the incoming Ukrainian president an outright threat. At the same time, however, the possible Kolomoysky connection could make the West hesitant to deal with Zelensky. After his inauguration in May 2019, Zelensky will lack a solid powerbase in the Rada and will face a disloyal cabinet, while the Kremlin will continue increasing its economic and political pressure. Zelensky’s election is not seen in Moscow as an outright victory; but the trouncing of Poroshenko is viewed as a decisive rejection of Ukrainian nationalism by the majority of Ukrainians. Indeed, such a notion may encourage Russia to again try more forcefully to reclaim Ukraine from the West.