Dispatch

Who’s Laughing Now: Zelensky or Putin?

Ukraine’s incoming comedian president has sent mixed signals on Russia. But the Kremlin may not sit still while he figures out a policy.

The Ukrainian actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky on set in Kiev, Ukraine, during filming of  “Servant of the People” on Feb. 6.
The Ukrainian actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky on set in Kiev, Ukraine, during filming of “Servant of the People” on Feb. 6. Efrem Lukatsky/AP

KIEV, Ukraine—Volodymyr Zelensky laughed his way into Ukraine’s presidency by a staggering margin of nearly 49 percent, according to preliminary results, and he barely talked about policy along the way. Nor did the former comic actor say much of substance in his victory speech on Sunday, when Zelensky shrugged off his unlikely passage into the world of serious politics with the phrase, “Everything is possible.”

But Zelensky will find his sense of humor—and substance—tested even before his inauguration, which is expected to come about a month after the official results are announced, probably next week. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is not noted for his mirth, may be ready to pounce sooner amid a Russian military and naval buildup, foreign and Ukrainian military officials told Foreign Policy.

“His first challenge will be the Putin exam,” said Andrius Kubilius, Lithuania’s former prime minister. Putin, pointedly, declined to congratulate Zelensky on Monday despite the latter’s occasional gestures of appeasement toward Moscow. 

Diplomats said it is hard to tell what Zelensky’s victory will mean for the ever-fraught Ukraine-Russia relationship because his actual policies are so little known and the extent of his power is undetermined. On election night, Zelensky said he would reboot talks with Russia and Putin to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine. But Zelensky also has said he wants to launch a vague “information war” to counter Putin and hold a referendum on European Union and NATO membership—which will no doubt enrage the Kremlin.

Nor has Zelensky announced his pick for foreign or defense minister, and when he does, they must be approved by the country’s parliament. That body holds the most power in the country’s political system and will have its elections in the fall.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev alluded to the tense relationship in a Facebook post on Monday, saying that he expected Zelensky to repeat “the same ideological tenets we know all too well, targeted at various social groups.”

Putin’s fixation on Ukraine was underlined in the report released last week by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller, who investigated Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. The partially redacted report cited how Konstantin Kilimnik, an individual with ties to Kremlin intelligence officials, apparently reached out to Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, to have America recognize Russia’s control over eastern Ukraine. Russia-backed separatists invaded Ukraine in 2014 with a land blitz that swiped the eastern Donbass region and Crimean Peninsula. 

It remains unclear how Zelensky will handle not only Putin, but his own armed forces. Zelensky will have to mend ties with Ukraine’s military after calling the Russia-backed separatists “rebels” at one point. “We do not have ‘rebels.’ We have Russian aggression,” said Ukraine’s armed forces on Twitter. The Armed Forces of Ukraine will not forget and will not forgive about that. Never!”

Despite that flub, some Russian separatists welcomed Zelensky’s electoral victory by shooting at Ukrainian troops on election night, a soldier on the front lines told Foreign Policy.

Ukrainian military officials say Russia is stockpiling troops along the contested border, even though any future conflict with Russia is bound to take place by sea, according to Capt. Andriy Ryzhenko, the Ukrainian navy’s deputy chief of staff. “Our vulnerability is defending our maritime border,” Ryzhenko said.

In November 2018, Russia’s navy fired on and captured Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait. Since then, cargo ships traveling through the strait have been delayed by Russian authorities, which Ukrainian military officials say is an attempt to suffocate the economy of eastern Ukraine. Ryzhenko said that in the next six years, Ukraine wants to gain control of the 12 nautical miles around the Black Sea but explained just how difficult the task would be. “Ukraine has two gunboats and two auxiliary vessels. Russia has more than 100 different vessels,” Ryzhenko said.

The naval threat from Russia comes amid some internal divisions from Western nations. The government of the defeated president, Petro Poroshenko, wants to join NATO because it believes that its collective defense clause, which means an attack on one nation is a strike on all members, would thwart future Russian aggression. But Western military officials say the alliance is paralyzed by disagreements regarding Ukraine—which in turn has created a fear of sharing intelligence through official NATO channels because certain countries, particularly Hungary and Italy, are seen as supportive of Russia. Still, NATO countries agreed on April 4 to boost military support for Ukraine.

The United States placed sanctions on Russian individuals in response to the Kremlin’s actions in eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and the Kerch Strait. Many Ukrainian and Eastern European politicians have called for more punishment of Russia and were surprised by the Trump administration’s decision to lift sanctions on businesses owned by Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to Putin, in January. A State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy that U.S. sanctions will remain in place until Russia reverses its actions in eastern Ukraine.

“The language [Russia] understands is strong deterrence policy both in terms of real deterrence in the military field but also deterrence using political tools as sanctions,” said Marko Mihkelson, the chairman of the Estonian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, during a security forum in Kiev days before Zelensky’s election. “Perhaps we have not yet used the tools we as Europeans or Western nations have in our hands to make clear that there are so many lines crossed by Russia.”

All of which makes for an unusually grave geopolitical crisis to face when, as in the case of Zelensky, the only political experience he has is playing a president on TV—and not even a serious, Josiah Bartlet-style president, as portrayed on The West Wing, but one who went purely for laughs.

To some, Zelensky’s victory has the populist elements of the Five Star Movement in Italy and Donald Trump in the United States, raging against their countries’ elite. When Zelensky spoke of politics at all, he promised to fight Ukraine’s embedded network of corruption and solve the war with Russia.

He also had a good argument to make against the old guard. Under Poroshenko, one of the country’s richest men, Ukraine was perceived to be the one of the most corrupt nations in Europe, according to Transparency International, and Poroshenko was seen as slow to implement necessary reforms. Poroshenko’s disapproval rating is between 55 and 65 percent, said Mikhail Minakov, a senior advisor at the Wilson Center. “In a way, 73 percent of active voters said no to corruption, nonfulfilled reforms, and the divisive national conservative ideology associated with Poroshenko.”

Zelensky’s greatest strengths were a near-universal name recognition and slick showmanship that came from his acting career. He insisted on holding a debate inside Ukraine’s Olympic Stadium that was reminiscent of a European soccer match with chanting crowds and dueling fan zones. During the debate, Zelensky attacked Poroshenko for Ukraine’s sluggish economic growth. Zelensky’s supporters howled in approval. At one point, Zelensky slumped to the ground to show how he would get on his knees to honor Ukraine’s soldiers.

Above all, Zelensky’s victory showed that Ukrainians want a new generation of leaders. “Zelensky’s team showed creativity in the use of new media and their ability to speak to the hearts of all generations, classes, and regional groups,” Minakov said.

Zelensky’s crushing electoral victory can thus be seen as the expected arc of countries after political upheaval, Kubilius told Foreign Policy. “In the first election after a revolution, usually people vote against the government despite who is in that government,” he said.

Zelensky’s image as a corruption fighter may come under immediate threat due to a legal squabble surrounding PrivatBank, Ukraine’s largest financial institution. PrivatBank was owned by Ihor Kolomoisky, a billionaire oligarch who is seen as the main financial and media backer of Zelensky’s campaign, but was nationalized in 2016 for alleged fraud. Last week, a Ukrainian court ruled that the nationalization was illegal and Kolomoisky is demanding $2 billion from the government.

Even so, some observers said the peaceful election of any candidate in besieged Ukraine is a good sign for democracy. According to Daniel Twining, the president of the International Republican Institute and former foreign-policy advisor to John McCain—who wrote of relishing the moment when he stood with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in 2013 to overthrow the country’s Russia-backed leader—the late Republican senator would have lauded Zelensky’s victory.

“McCain would say that the fact that Ukrainians were able to depose a sitting president, who controls not only administrative but vast financial resources, through a peaceful election is pretty singular in the post-Soviet space,” Twining said.

Justin Lynch is a journalist covering Eastern Europe, Africa, and cybersecurity. Twitter: @just1nlynch

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