President Petro Poroshenko may be the most Moscow-hated Ukrainian politician today. The Russian state-run propaganda machine has been lambasting Poroshenko for months ahead of the March 31 presidential election, and top officials publicly joined in. According to the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, Ukraine is ruled by Americans from Washington who support Poroshenko because he is their pawn. “If Poroshenko stays in power through massive vote rigging,” Patrushev insisted last month, “it will be impossible to restore relations with Russia, the crisis in Ukraine will worsen and the country may disintegrate” (Izvestia, March 25).
Ukraine is seen in Moscow and in the Kremlin as a critical battleground in the global standoff between Russia and the United States. It all began in 2004 with the so-called “Orange Revolution,” when massive protests in Kyiv against alleged systemic vote rigging prevented the election of Moscow-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych. Although eventually rising to the presidency in the election of 2010, Yanukovych was ousted in February 2014 by another popular revolt—the “EuroMaidan Revolution” (also known as the “Revolution of Dignity”). After the Orange Revolution, President Vladimir Putin and the ruling Russian elite dramatically changed Moscow’s strategic direction from cooperation and partnership with the West to rivalry and confrontation, combined with a massive military/nuclear buildup. The ouster of Yanukovych in 2014 was followed by the occupation and speedy annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and the military conflict in eastern Donbas. In February 2019, Poroshenko initiated a constitutional amendment, approved by the Supreme Rada (Ukrainian parliament), proclaiming the country’s intent to integrate with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, this constitutional amendment, “signed by Poroshenko with so much pomp,” was a “provocation aimed at destroying the Minsk accords on conflict resolution in Donbas” (Militarynews.ru, February 21). The codification of Ukrainian intent to join NATO is seen in Moscow as the ultimate proof of Western (i.e., US) long-term strategic intentions to transform Ukraine into a forward operational base: a gun aimed at the heart of Russia.
Poroshenko was elected in May 2014 with over 50 percent of the popular vote. But by 2018, he lost most of his support, which is typical for Ukraine. Since independence, in 1991, only one incumbent president ever succeeded in being reelected: Leonid Kuchma, in 1999. Still, by election day on March 31, 2019, Poroshenko, who ran a well-organized campaign, managed to make it into the runoff election, scheduled for April 21, by obtaining almost 16 percent of the vote. He came in second place to political satirist/comedian Volodymyr Zelensky (41), who was born to a Jewish family in the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial city of Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine. Since October 2015, Zelensky has played the role of high school professor Vasyl Holoborodko, who, by chance, is elected Ukrainian president as an anti-corruption (anti-oligarch) candidate in the popular television show Servant of the People, which runs on the Ukrainian channel 1+1 and is distributed internationally by Netflix. The 1+1 channel belongs to Ihor Kolomoyskyi, a powerful Jewish-Ukrainian oligarch, who was initially an ally of Poroshenko, but bitterly broke with him in 2015 and is now in self-imposed exile in Switzerland. In June 2018, Kolomoyskyi told journalists Zelensky could run and win the presidency despite lacking previous political/administrative experience. Zelensky has denied he is a Kolomoyskyi puppet or that his campaign is bankrolled by the oligarch (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 2).
Poroshenko claims to have “upset the Russian scenario of the election” by making it into the runoff (Interfax, March 31). But on March 31, Zelensky won over 30 percent of the popular vote—twice as much as Poroshenko—and currently looks unstoppable, which is seen in Moscow as a positive development. According to Kremlin-connected Senator Igor Morozov, “Putin will not talk to Poroshenko, but is ready to talk to Zelensky” (Ukraina.ru, April 1). Zelensky has called the NATO membership constitutional amendment “electioneering politics” and promised to call a referendum “for the people to decide” the matter, which could turn out to be a backdoor to reverse the NATO membership drive (Izvestia, March 21).
In Ukraine, the parliament has more power than the president. The next Rada elections are scheduled for fall 2019, and Zelensky, widely considered the favorite to win the presidency, has formed a “Servant of the People” party, apparently hoping to win enough votes to form a stable ruling coalition. Russian experts interpret Zelensky’s election success as a protest vote, similar to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 or the electoral successes of Eurosceptics in Italy and other EU countries in recent years. Zelensky is seen as much better for Russia than Poroshenko. But it is not clear whether the former, if he wins, will be capable or willing to deliver the result Moscow wants: a nonaligned Ukraine that renounces NATO membership and shifts away from the US back into the Russian orbit. In their mutual desire to oust Poroshenko, Kolomoyskyi, Zelensky and Putin have become circumstantial allies for the time being, even though, in 2014–2015, Kolomoyskyi and Putin were bitter personal enemies. The Kremlin could eventually decide to declare the Ukrainian elections fraudulent and illegitimate, if it does not like their end result. Russian experts believe Poroshenko, together with his purported US masters and their North Atlantic Alliance minions, might provoke a military confrontation with Russia similar to the one from November 25, 2018, when a convoy of three Ukrainian naval ships attempted to cross from the Black Sea through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian convoy was forcibly attacked by the Russian military; the ships and the men are still being held prisoner despite Western protests (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 3).
On March 28, the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) entered the Black Sea to visit Georgia and Ukraine and hold naval exercises (Interfax, March 28). One day earlier, the Russian navy, air force and the Federal Security Service (FSB) Border Guards performed war games in the Black Sea to prepare to jointly attack, board and capture “foreign naval vessels” that attempt to enter the Kerch Strait (Militarynews.ru, March 28). According to the chair of the Duma defense committee, Colonel-General (ret.) Vladimir Shamanov, joint Russian forces are ready to repulse NATO ships using superior military force if they attempt to approach the strait (Interfax, April 3). Tension is building up in and around Ukraine, with election day less than three weeks away.