Which Way Will Ukraine Swing?

A year after Zelensky’s election, mixed messaging on the country’s relationships with Russia and Europe is raising eyebrows internationally.

Ukraine Prisoner Swap Protests
Relatives of Ukrainian service members held in prisons of Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country hold their portraits as they protest the terms of a prisoner swap outside President Volodymyr Zelensky's office in Kyiv on April 28. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Image

When Ukraine’s comedian-turned-presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky swept the election a year ago, he vowed to uproot corruption, jail the country’s top crooks, stop Russia’s war against Ukraine, and attract billions of dollars in foreign direct investment. A year after his May 20, 2019, inauguration, none of these grand promises are even close to being fulfilled—and many Ukrainians are losing patience. Beyond his domestic challenges, Zelensky faces mounting pressures outside the country, where he must contend with a preoccupied West and a powerful Russia. If he cannot meet his campaign promises as well as offer a clear and committed Western-oriented reform agenda, Zelensky may lose the international partners Ukraine desperately needs to avoid falling back into Russia’s arms.

Zelensky’s unlikely win followed a comedy career capped by the political satire Servant of the People. The hit show ridiculed corrupt officials and featured Zelensky playing a dedicated, successful—albeit improbable—leader. Boosted by the show and a campaign predicated on populist rhetoric, Zelensky won the presidential seat as well as a parliamentary majority for his party. But in the political arena, his first year has hardly been as straightforward as his TV show. Even as he enjoys the unprecedented position of controlling both the executive and legislative branches, there is much division within his own team among various factions with scattered agendas—those promising reforms clashing with those representing the interests of oligarchs.

This lack of a clear message is becoming a fundamental problem for Zelensky. The consequences may be dire for Ukraine, if the commitment of its international partners fades in turn.

An early alarm bell went off in January when Zelensky’s closest ally in parliament, Servant of the People party head David Arakhamia, sent a troublesome message during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, saying Ukraine should not proceed with legislation harmonizing ties with the European Union. For many Ukrainians, such a statement represented betrayal of the new government from the hard-fought association agreement with the EU that was signed back in March 2014. The agreement is meant to align Ukraine’s political-economic direction with EU legislation, which would also continue to effectively reorient the country to a Western trajectory and away from Russia. After strong criticism on social media, Arakhamia backtracked and said his words were “lost in translation.”

An even bigger concern for Western governments arose as Zelensky’s government dragged its feet over reforms promised to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF, a vital financial supporter of Ukraine, has been providing billions of dollars in financial aid on the condition that Ukraine pass a bill to rehabilitate its banking sector. In particular, the bill mandated that Ukraine’s largest bank, PrivatBank—nationalized in late 2016 after a $5.5 billion discrepancy was found in its ledger—would not be returned to its previous owners, Gennadiy Bogolyubov and Ihor Kolomoisky. Kolomoisky is a former business partner of Zelensky, and his TV channel heavily promoted the presidential campaign. The IMF, worried about PrivatBank being returned back to its tainted former owners, conditioned a new $5.5 billion financial package issued in December 2019 to a bill that would prevent the return of PrivatBank to its previous owners.

In the intervening months, however, Kolomoisky’s associates in parliament jammed a record 16,335 amendments into the bill, slowing its passage. (The bill finally passed its second reading on May 13, most likely to secure the next tranche of a little under $2 billion from the IMF.) Some have been quick to credit Zelensky for the victory; in reality, the bill should have passed long ago given that his party controls both branches of government. Ukraine’s sluggish progress on reforms like these endangers its continued financial support from international partners.

When he came to power, Zelensky inherited a country that was weakened by Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine but had begun confidently moving toward the West. Zelensky promised to bring peace to Ukraine and end the war, which is why he swiftly agreed to meet with Russia during the so-called Normandy Four summit in Paris in December 2019. During this meeting, Russia scored a number of victories, including a favorable gas deal, a prisoner exchange, and stronger control in territories it occupies in Ukraine.

Zelensky’s political appointments throughout his first year have added to the doubt over his commitments to broker peace with Russia without capitulating to the Kremlin and staying on course with the EU.

On Feb. 11, Zelensky replaced Andriy Bohdan (a former lawyer for Kolomoisky and problematic character himself) with Andriy Yermak, known for his business ties with Russia’s elite. Yermak is now under scrutiny by investigative journalists, who have revealed his family’s alleged involvement in corruption, including taking bribes for government appointments. Yermak’s appointment was followed by a sweeping cabinet reshuffle in March, with similar shortfalls. Zelensky appointed a new prosecutor general, Irina Venediktova, who has been criticized for reversing the anti-corruption movement. Particularly troubling is Venediktova’s move to appoint as one of her deputies Oleksandr Babikov, a former lawyer of Ukraine’s disgraced Kremlin-loyalist president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted during the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. Ukraine’s newest prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, meanwhile announced his support for renewing the water supply from mainland Ukraine to Russia-annexed Crimea just after his March 4 appointment. Days later, the Ukrainian lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk and other lawmakers drew ire for a visit to Moscow, where they met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Vyacheslav Volodin, the chair of Russia’s parliament. (Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter.) The intervening months have seen more moves in Russia’s favor, including attempts to begin dialogue with the Kremlin’s proxies in the Donbass region and the house arrest of Tetiana Chornovol, a former lawmaker who was a vocal activist during the 2014 revolution. Amid criticism, Zelensky has been silent.

The new government appointments send equally unclear messages regarding Ukraine’s future ties to NATO. Officially, the administration has vowed continued interest in one day joining the alliance. But recent comments from the new defense minister, Andriy Taran, have raised concerns over its commitment. During his introductory address on March 11, Taran said it was “ambitious but unachievable” for the country’s military standards to adapt to those of NATO. There was widespread backlash to the statement, including from his predecessor—leading to a Defense Ministry clarification. But the statements, coupled with efforts to eliminate the ministry’s oversight office, have led analysts to wonder whether Ukraine still intends to aim for integration.

The ambiguous and murky messages coming from Zelensky’s administration undermine Ukraine’s stability. Zelensky’s detractors paint such efforts as evidence of his willingness to do whatever it takes to bring peace with Russia—even if that means turning Ukraine’s loyalty away from the EU. That, in turn, makes it easier for the Kremlin’s lobbyists to promote the lifting of sanctions against Russia; they will point at Ukraine’s unwillingness to commit to a Western trajectory and use their own Kremlin-loyalist lawmakers in Ukraine to saw away at the country’s cooperation with Western partners. All of this will inevitably lead to Russia gaining more influence in the region.

Western leaders should be concerned about the potential for Ukraine to backslide into Russia’s embrace. The success of Ukraine’s democracy is vital for the success of other post-Soviet countries in the region; investing in relations with Ukraine will only serve the West in the long run.

Western nations should continue providing critical reform-based financial aid. This means that international financial organizations such as the IMF should not allow Ukraine’s lawmakers to cut corners when it comes to following through with promised reforms. Western democracies should also consider sanctioning Ukraine’s Russia-friendly tycoons and oligarchs by banning their entry to the EU and United States, as well as sanctioning their companies and family members. This will put pressure on the nation’s biggest crooks and incentivize anti-corruption sweeps. Western nations should demand clear and committed communication from Zelensky’s team, which has been equivocating and often dissembling. Additionally, the ambiguous messages coming from Zelensky’s team should by no means serve as an excuse to return to business as usual with Russia, and the Kremlin should be targeted with stronger sanctions.

Within the country, Ukraine’s reformers must finally unite in their fight against corruption. A powerful solidarity among Ukraine’s reformers is possible, as was demonstrated during the Euromaidan Revolution. Currently, systematic reform is largely absent in Ukraine as the nation’s sound reformers are scattered among legislative branches or are simply worn out by lack of reform progress. There is division among Ukraine’s intellectual elite stemming from allegiances laid out ahead of the last election. It is time, however, for emotionally charged political differences to be set aside so that those seeking justice in Ukraine can battle the monolith on its eastern border while resisting endemic corruption at home.

Ilya Timtchenko is the Ukraine head at REDD Intelligence and a former business editor at the Kyiv Post.

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