It’s election season on Kremlin TV, but the presidential campaign receiving wall-to-wall coverage from Russia’s federal channels is taking place across the border in Ukraine. This is hardly surprising. Moscow’s obsession with all things Ukrainian is well-documented and reflects the centrality of information operations to Vladimir Putin’s five-year hybrid war against Ukraine. What’s interesting about this coverage is the absence of a preferred pro-Russian candidate. Instead, the Kremlin is focused on discrediting the electoral process itself. While the spectacle of a dictatorship accusing its neighbor of democratic shortcomings may at first glance seem absurd, this strategy makes perfect sense. With no chance of achieving a favorable result, Russia is simply getting its excuses in early.
The Kremlin certainly has a lot of explaining to do. There was a time in the not so distant past when Moscow was guaranteed a leading role in any Ukrainian election. Indeed, less than a decade ago, staunch Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych secured 49 percent of the vote to win the Ukrainian presidency. Such figures are beyond the wildest dreams of Russia’s current leading candidate Yuriy Boyko, who will be happy if he secures more than 10 percent in Sunday’s first round of voting. Meanwhile, Russia must watch from the sidelines as Ukraine’s three leading presidential candidates denounce Putin’s war while burnishing their credentials as opponents of Kremlin aggression.
Moscow still has its own preferences in Ukraine’s race. Putin has made it clear that Russia does not want incumbent Petro Poroshenko to secure a second term. However, this does not make the alternatives any more palatable. Wildcard candidate and TV comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy is probably the preferred Kremlin choice due to his support for the Russian language and stated readiness to negotiate bilaterally with Moscow. At the same time, he has spoken of the need to wage a Russian-language information war against the Kremlin and repeatedly ruled out any compromises that would sacrifice Ukrainian sovereignty. Veteran campaigner and former two-time Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is also seen as a potential improvement due to her past readiness to cut murky gas deals with the Kremlin, but she has spent much of the campaign promising the return of occupied eastern Ukraine and Crimea, while lambasting Poroshenko over alleged defense sector corruption.
Both Zelenskiy and Tymoshenko have faced campaign trail attempts to portray them as Kremlin stooges, but in reality they are a million miles away from the openly pro-Russian politicians who once dominated the Ukrainian electoral landscape. Crucially, they are also operating in a drastically changed political environment. Even if either of Poroshenko’s chief rivals was personally inclined to seek a negotiated compromise with Russia, they would find their room for maneuver severely restricted by prevailing Ukrainian public opinion, which strongly opposes anything even hinting at capitulation to the Kremlin.
It is not difficult to understand why Russia has become so toxic to Ukrainian voters. Since the outbreak of hostilities in 2014, Moscow’s ongoing hybrid war has killed over 13,000 Ukrainians and left millions of lives in tatters. The Kremlin’s fateful decision to attack Ukraine has proven a geopolitical blunder of historic proportions that has fractured what was previously one of the most closely entwined bilateral relationships on the planet.
Moscow’s miscalculation has its roots in the lingering imperial hubris that prevents many in Russia from thinking of Ukraine as a separate country. The available evidence suggests that in spring 2014, the Kremlin genuinely believed local populations would welcome the Russian seizure of Ukrainian towns and cities throughout the south and east of the country. The grassroots opposition Russia encountered from Ukraine’s volunteer war effort came as a nasty surprise that led to the current stalemate. Moscow now finds itself trapped in its eastern Ukrainian enclaves, unwilling to advance due to the prohibitive costs this would involve, and unable to retreat for fear of sparking a nationalist backlash inside Russia itself. The Kremlin has occupied enough of Ukraine to inflict national trauma, but not enough to dictate terms to the remainder of the country.
As well as turning Ukrainian public opinion decisively against Russia, Putin’s invasion has also effectively disenfranchised the Kremlin’s traditional electoral base of Ukrainian supporters. The three Ukrainian regions currently under Russian occupation (Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk) provided the lion’s share of votes for Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential race. Their removal from the Ukrainian democratic process dramatically reduces Russia’s ability to influence the outcome of future Ukrainian elections. With the loss of Crimea and part of the Donbas, 3.75 million fewer Ukrainians can vote, and in 2010, 87 percent of these voters backed pro-Russian candidate Yanukovych. This means that a quarter of Yanukovych’s voters cannot vote on Sunday.
Nor is there any reason to believe Moscow can eventually regain the ground it has lost since 2014. The wounds of the current war will take decades to heal. Meanwhile, Russia’s remaining Ukrainian voters are overwhelmingly pensioners clinging to increasingly anachronistic notions of a shared Soviet past. This dwindling electorate is being slowly but surely replaced by an emerging generation of post-independence Ukrainians with no personal memory of the Soviet era whose views on Russia will inevitably be informed by the current conflict.
The removal of Russia as a leading electoral force in Ukrainian politics is arguably the most significant geopolitical outcome of Putin’s war. It is part of a broader process taking shape over the past five years that has seen the erosion of Russian soft power tools as Ukraine has broadened its economic horizons while cutting religious, cultural, and social ties to the country’s former imperial master. Trade with Russia has withered to a fraction of its former levels as exports to European and Asian markets have boomed. Ukrainians now enjoy visa-free travel to the European Union and have their own Orthodox Church. At street level, millions have ditched Kremlin-controlled social media platforms in favor of Facebook, while Russian serials no longer dominate Ukrainian TV schedules. None of this would have been possible without the catalyst of Russian aggression.
Ukraine’s nation-building odyssey is still a work in progress and it may take decades before the divorce from Russia is complete. Nevertheless, Moscow’s bystander status in the current Ukrainian presidential race illustrates how rapidly the split has escalated since 2014. Kremlin pundits can rave about rigged votes and falsification as much as they wish, but the fact remains that Putin’s dreams of informal empire have suffered a decisive defeat. Three hundred years of Russian dominance over Ukraine are drawing to a close, and the Kremlin has nobody to blame but itself.
Peter Dickinson is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and publisher of Business Ukraine and Lviv Today magazines. He tweets @Biz_Ukraine_Mag.