UkraineAlert

The first round of Ukraine’s presidential election went overwhelmingly to Volodymyr Zelenskiy, but his victory in round two is by no means self-evident—especially if his rival, incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, plays his cards right.

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Showman Volodymyr Zelenskiy may soon become the next president of Ukraine. His chances of winning the second round, slated for April 21, are high. He has long prepared to go into politics, thus his victory in the first round was neither sudden nor unexpected. However, he lacks any political experience and seems to have little understanding of domestic or foreign policy, which makes many in Ukraine and the West increasingly wary of his potential presidency.

In this situation, understandably, much focus has been placed on his future political agenda. Western leaders have called on Zelenskiy to reveal his plans, yet it is fair to say that as of now they simply do not exist. Zelenskiy has been a blank page upon which almost anything might be written. His views on a wide range of political issues are only now being shaped. Therefore, more important than what he says, or does not say, is who has his ear.

There are four main groups around Zelenskiy who try to influence his thinking.

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Russia’s war with Ukraine has entered its sixth year, and despite the asymmetrical nature of the conflict, it has reached a stalemate. Russian President Vladimir Putin has clearly breached all international laws, but nobody wants to do the heavy lifting required to dislodge Putin from the occupied territories.

To Ukrainians, now entering the second round of their presidential election, the war is second only to corruption as the most important issue facing their nation. Each candidate must now detail his blueprint to resolve the lingering and costly conflict. President Petro Poroshenko has vowed to fight until the territories are returned and join NATO, and frontrunner Volodymyr Zelenskiy wants the territories returned, has pledged to hold a referendum on joining NATO, and says he’s willing to talk with Putin.

Several US military experts were asked about the best way forward and were divided as to priorities: More military aid, more diplomacy, more sanctions, a clean-up of Ukrainian corruption, or all in varying degrees.

“I don’t think it is complicated,” said Phillip Karber, a defense advisor to NATO governments and president of the Potomac Foundation. Karber has been in Ukraine thirty times, including spending one winter at the front. “Nothing is going to change until Putin decides he’s not going to do it anymore.” Karber said that the West must find ways to increase the costs on Putin in the Donbas.

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On March 31, Ukrainians gave a first-round victory to Volodymyr Zelenskiy for president with an endorsement of just over 30 percent. The incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, obtained around 16 percent, entering the runoff over third placed Yulia Tymoshenko. The voters clearly expressed their disillusionment with the existing political establishment and have chosen as frontrunner an outsider with no political experience. The elections have been accepted by most observer missions as being run fairly with relatively few violations.

The key factor which appears to have been central to these results is the failure of the incumbent president to fulfill the promises which he made in the 2014 elections. We should recall that he swept into office with an overwhelming first-round win. The most glaring of broken promises include the failure to fight corruption, to bring to justice the criminals of the Yanukovych regime, to curb the power of the oligarchs, and to establish the rule of law. On the economic front, while a number of reforms were accomplished, improvement in the economic well-being of the average citizen was not realized. Unsurprisingly, Poroshenko was unable to deliver on his promise to “quickly” end Russian aggression in the Donbas though a strengthened army and a stand-off has been achieved. Sadly, the incumbent’s 2014 electoral promise of “Living in a New Way” never materialized and he lost the confidence of many voters.

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Sending law enforcement officers in balaclavas armed with Kalashnikovs kicking down a company’s office door in a frantic search for financial records or tax documents is quite possibly the worst message a government can send to business owners, shareholders or executives. This is what I told President Petro Poroshenko a couple of years ago in a hall packed with five hundred business leaders during one of his regular meetings with the international business community. Consequently, parliament introduced new legislation curtailing the brutality of business inspections. These dramatic raids on business are now all but a memory of the low points that investors faced while doing business in Ukraine years ago. Many reforms have been introduced since 2015, and Ukraine has started reappearing on investors’ radar screens. However, foreign direct investment (FDI) remains too small, around 2 percent of GDP.

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Comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy won the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on March 31 and has a strong chance of winning the run-off on April 21. Zelenskiy will face incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who won just under 16 percent. Zelenskiy’s strong performance caught some off-guard, but the results of the election says at least seven important things about Ukraine.  

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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.

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The G-7 wrote to Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov about the threat to Ukraine’s presidential election from the far-right National Corps political party and National Militia civic organization, both led by Andriy Biletsky with whom he has had a long relationship. The G-7 warned, “They intimidate Ukrainian citizens, try to usurp the role of the National Police in ensuring the security of elections, and damage the national and international reputation of the Ukrainian government.”

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In June 2018, Ukraine’s parliament adopted the Law on National Security, with the help of the United States and other international partners, including NATO and the European Union. Among other things, the law set the frame for the functions of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and opened the door for comprehensive reform of that institution. The Rada now should move to adopt a new law on the SBU to implement real reform of the security service, whose roots go back to the Soviet KGB.

SBU reform is a vital matter of national security for Ukraine. An attempt was made to reform the SBU in 2016, when a working group including international partners developed a concept to align the agency with NATO standards. Unfortunately, it failed to gain traction.

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On March 31, Ukrainians go to the polls to elect their sixth president. An openly pro-Russian candidate is unlikely to win. However, Moscow is watching closely and cares about the outcome. What is it saying about the election? We analyzed the most widespread Kremlin manipulations about Ukraine’s presidential election on Russian state-controlled media in March. We selected examples from three Russian state-owned websites with high ratings: Channel One Russia, RT, and Ukraina.ru.

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