The second round of the presidential elections in Ukraine, held last Sunday (April 21), was a rather unconventional democratic exercise. And for millions of keen followers in Russia, who looked at it through the distorting lens of their mainstream media, it was oddly disconcerting. For one thing, the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, who was elected amidst the severe war crisis in 2014 and performed better than expected, was convincingly defeated. For another, the challenger, Volodymyr Zelensky—vaguely familiar to many Russians thanks to his starring role in a popular television show—proved that a person with zero political experience could gain massive public support in a short time. Russian propaganda is usually keen to present political processes in Ukraine, as well as in the Balkans, as shrewdly manipulated by the United States. Yet, in this instance, it was unable to credibly spin any conspiracy theories about Western sponsorship (Kommersant, April 22). Difficult as it was, many Russians had to internalize the uncomfortable conclusions that Ukrainians really had an opportunity to make a free and considered choice and ended up replacing their leader, whom they had grown tired of.
Clearly, neither of the Ukrainian presidential contenders harbored any sympathy toward or intention to make peace with Russia. And even though Zelensky avoided aggressive rhetoric in the campaign, Moscow saw no point in backing him against the tough-speaking though more predictable Poroshenko (RBC, April 20). In fact, the new Ukrainian president, with his strong mandate to try new means and methods of doing political business, could turn out to be a more difficult counterpart for the Kremlin in maneuvering around the deadlocked conflict in Donbas (Carnegie.ru, April 15). Moscow has indicated readiness to increase economic pressure on Ukraine but mostly (see EDM, March 11, April 15) refrained from multi-pronged “hybrid” interference aimed at compromising the integrity of its elections (Forbes.ru, April 18). Ukraine may be a chronic economic under-achiever, but it has made a step forward in democracy-building and reconfirmed its identity as a pluralistic European state with plenty of internal disagreements underpinning solid national unity.
Zelensky’s victory is a clear manifestation of disappointment in and resentment against the traditional political elites, a trend that Ukraine shares with many European states. Populists of different persuasions are trying to exploit this discontent, but the recent election of Zuzana Čaputová as president of Slovakia shows growing support for younger anti-corruption rather than pro-nationalist politicians (Republic.ru, April 2). The Kremlin tries to pretend that the longing for fresh ideas and leaders is non-existent in Russia, but the persistent attempts to falsify economic data and paint a picture of reinvigorated growth betray growing doubts in the public’s mood (Rosbalt, April 19). President Vladimir Putin came face-to-face last week with the new generation of European leaders, greeting in Moscow Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid; he looked distinctly uncomfortable responding to her straight and confident handling of difficult issues in bilateral relations (Kommersant, April 19).
It is, indeed, far easier for the Russian leadership to announce a complete termination of relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) rather than to keep denying the blatant breaches of international norms and simulate readiness to engage in joint work on reducing tensions (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 21). What the pro-Kremlin commentators call “tough realism” is in fact an old blend of bluffing, brinksmanship and bullying, aimed at amplifying every discord in Transatlantic and intra-European relations that Moscow finds exploitable (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, April 21). A key part of this divide-and-survive strategy is the brandishing of new weapons systems, and Putin has developed a fancy for “wonder-missiles.” As a result, proposals of the supposed acceptability and feasibility of limited nuclear war have increasingly found their way into Russian foreign policy debates (Russiancouncil.ru, April 18). This far-from-innocent boasting on the part of the Kremlin typically involves some gross exaggerations. But the scope of problems in Russia’s military-industrial complex can be deduced from the reluctant official acknowledgement of setbacks and deficiencies in the Russian space sector (Kommersant, April 17).
Mismanagement, aggravated by corruption, has become an inherent feature of Putin’s leadership, and it determines the need to channel a greater share of resources toward military buildup, which inevitably exacerbates social problems that cannot be camouflaged by creative accounting (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 21). This dynamic of degradation generates angst and discontent in Russian society that mostly remain hidden but reveal themselves in sudden outbursts of protest and the urge to punish corrupt officials (Navalny.com, April 18). The latter may, at least in part, be manifesting in growing popular respect for the dictatorial rule of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (Levada.ru, April 16; see EDM, April 18). Many liberal commentators are deeply upset about this observed shift in public mood, while others argue that this “respect” is primarily a reflection of deep resentment against the shameless self-enrichment of Putin’s elites (New Times, April 17).
Public opinion in Ukraine struggles with different problems and does not suffer from the typical Russian nostalgia for its lost but deeply valued “Great Power” status. What Poroshenko’s crushing defeat shows, however, is the readiness of the society to move beyond the mobilization caused by the smoldering war in Donbas and to focus on the problems of reconstruction and development (MBK Media, April 21). This yearning for new perspectives is growing in Russian society as well, and the official propaganda’s gross exaggeration of difficulties in Ukraine cannot quell Russians’ desire to escape the quagmire of stagnation (Moscow Echo, April 22).
The Russian establishment is loath to interpret Zelensky’s victory as a sign of Ukraine’s choice to re-energize its domestic reforms, and it does not know what to expect from this incomprehensible change of government. By locking itself into the violent and deeply unjust conflict with its “brotherly” neighbor five years ago, Russia has regressed even further into a corrupt autocracy that justifies its existence by fomenting the confrontation with the West. The Kremlin cannot tolerate a Ukraine that defies the logic and rejects the strictures of this conflict; and so Moscow will try to enforce on the inexperienced Ukrainian leadership the priority of managing the unwinnable war. Zelensky’s team will be tested before it is ready to deal with difficult challenges. But every victory the Kremlin will seek to score will likely hit Russia harder than Ukraine. Militarism is the bane of Russian politics and economy. And even though the society is growing tired of it, the elites are committed to building and projecting military power, no matter the consequences for the disordered state.