Ukraine: The Election That Will Change Nothing
The well-known Ukrainian television comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, will most likely win the April 21 runoff presidential election. His victory, however, will not bring any major changes to Ukrainian foreign policy, nor will it contribute to resolving the Donbass conflict.
Zelensky doesn’t intend to offer any autonomy to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), and he openly said that he doesn’t intend to negotiate with their leaders. He plans to hold direct talks with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, as he doesn’t want to waste his time negotiating with those that don’t make any decisions. In other words, Zelensky is quite aware that the DNR and LNR leaders are nothing but Kremlin puppets, so it’s quite possible that, after his election, the format of the Minsk Protocol will be extended.
At this point, however, it’s unlikely that the Kremlin will agree to return the Donbass republics to Ukraine, which is the main condition for softening Western sanctions on Russia. The economy of both, DPR and LPR, is heavily linked with Russia, as well as the whole state apparatus of those entities. Although Russian officials pointed out on several occasions that the self-proclaimed republics, according to the Minsk Protocol, should reintegrate into Ukraine, such a scenario would be seen by most Russians as an open betrayal of the pro-Russia fighters in Donbass. The Kremlin would, undoubtedly, try to portray it as another great geopolitical victory of Russian foreign policy, but it’s too risky since Putin’s approval rating is at a near-record low. The lack of his popularity is not caused by the Russian involvement in the Donbass conflict, and the ongoing war in Syria, as some analysts suggest. The main reason why Russia’s trust in its president has fallen to its lowest level since 2006 is a controversial pension reform, and the declining economy. Still, the betrayal of Donbass would certainly negatively affect Putin’s approval rating, which is something that the Kremlin is trying to avoid by all means.
Zelensky, on the other hand, tries to represent the voters living in the Russian-speaking southeastern parts of Ukraine. Those people, however, are not pro-Russia oriented but are loyal to Ukraine. He can also count on voters who supported a relatively pro-Russian candidate, Yuri Boyko, in the first round of the election on March 31. Boyko got some 35-39% of the votes in the Kiev-controlled Donbass territory. Ukrainian political analysts close to the incumbent, President Petro Poroshenko, are suggesting that Zelensky’s policy if elected, will be pro-Russian. Such claims are unfounded, and such a policy would be practically impossible since Ukraine is heavily under the US sphere of influence after the events in Maidan in 2004 when pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s election will, therefore, bring no major changes to Ukraine-Russia relations. They will remain tense, the conflict in Donbass will go on, but the level of shelling might be reduced, which would be the only relatively positive outcome for the local population.
Although Zelensky promised de-oligarchization of Ukraine, the country’s economy will remain dependent on the powerful oligarchs. Many analysts believe that Zelensky is, actually, just a front man for Igor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian Jewish billionaire currently residing in Israel. He’s keeping most of his assets in Western banks, and it’s expected that Ukraine under Zelensky will remain in the orbit of the International Monetary Fund. Even if he tries to make significant changes to the economy, and politics in general, Zelensky will certainly be faced with obstructions in the Ukrainian parliament.
Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation will also remain the same. The US doesn’t have any reasons to abandon its very successful foreign policy in Ukraine. Therefore, the country will remain an instrument used by the West in its geopolitical struggle against Russia. The Kremlin, on the other hand, will unlikely abandon its proxies in Donbass, at least in this phase, and will keep using them as a tool and a method of pressure on Kiev.
The current position of Ukraine is similar to Georgia in 2012 after Mikhail Saakashvili lost parliamentary elections. The main frontman was replaced, but the country’s geopolitical vector remained unchanged.