If Moscow felt a warm sense of schadenfreude at the electoral trouncing of Ukraine’s incumbent President Poroshenko in the second round of the April 21 presidential elections, celebrations were outwardly subdued. Largely absent was the open, vindictive gloating that had accompanied Viktor Yushchenko’s record-breaking humiliation in the first round of Ukraine’s 2010 presidential elections. All the same, Putin declined even to congratulate the victor, comedian and political neophyte Volodymyr Zelensky, notwithstanding the widespread impression that Zelensky seeks a less contentious relationship with Ukraine’s great northern neighbor. Indeed, Moscow “greeted” Zelensky with a double whammy, announcing both the virtual end of Russian hydrocarbon exports to Ukraine, and a policy of facilitating the issuance of Russian passports, ostensibly as a humanitarian gesture, to Ukrainian citizens in the Russian-controlled Donbas.
Is Putin simply making these provocative moves in order to take the measure of the new, untested Ukrainian President, whose last name literally means “green?” Is the Kremlin being cagey, concealing its underlying affinity for Ukraine’s new President under a mantle of tepid rhetoric and hostile actions? Is Putin playing the part of the cool, calculating master of the situation, or, to the contrary, is the Kremlin exuding a palpable sense of unease, perhaps even a whiff of alarm, at the prospect of a Zelensky Administration in fraternal Ukraine?
While Russian liberals celebrated the salutary example of Ukrainians unseating an incumbent President in free and fair elections, the Kremlin is probably not overly anxious about any democratic contagion. After all, elections are no guarantee of honest or capable governance, as Ukrainians know better than anyone else. The past three Ukrainian Presidents legitimately won elections, only to be chased out in ignominy—two via massive electoral repudiations and one by a howling mob. This seemingly regular cycle of democratic elections followed by kleptocratic and incompetent governance solidifies the popular Russian perception of Ukraine as shambolic and chronically incapable of managing its own affairs properly. (All the more reason those affairs should be managed by someone else, no?) Far from presenting a temptation to Russians, the example of independent Ukraine, with all its poverty, inequality and deep-seated corruption, is grist for the mill of Kremlin apologists warning about the futility, even harmfulness, of Western-style democracy on the alien cultural soil of the supposed “Russian world.”
What, then, might make Moscow apprehensive about a Zelensky presidency? I believe there are two factors in play.
First, while democratic elections and the crushing defeat of an incumbent in Ukraine will not by themselves impress many Russians, they point to something potentially highly subversive for the Putin model of governance and for Russian policy in the post-Soviet space.
Poroshenko ran for reelection on the record of his first term and could boast of some formidable accomplishments: consolidating the Ukrainian national identity, halting (if not reversing) the Russian-cum-separatist erosion of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, building up the country’s military capabilities, and securing ecclesiastical independence for a Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Nevertheless, he richly deserved the trouncing he received at the polls because of his abject failure to tackle Ukraine’s chronic injustice, exemplified by the power of the oligarchs and the country’s endemic corruption.
Zelensky now has an opportunity to make good on the thus-far unrealized promise of the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Revolution of Dignity—to curb the power of the oligarchs, to reduce pervasive corruption, and to level the economic playing field in Ukraine. Russians might actually sit up and take notice if Kyiv managed to cut Ukraine’s oligarchs down to size, remediate the ubiquitous bribery and bureaucratism that plague everyday life, reduce the country’s obscene income disparities, and create the conditions for broadly based economic growth and rising incomes. If Ukraine’s relative freedom became associated in popular Russian thought not with anarchy and arbitrariness but with a modicum of justice and prosperity, the repercussions for Russia could be earth-shaking—or at least regime-shaking. Considering Ukraine’s rampant corruption and injustice, it should take only modest effort on Zelensky’s part to show some improvement—and his daring inaugural announcement to dissolve the Rada and hold snap parliamentary elections suggests a determination to take the corruption bull by the horns.
Aside from casting the Putin model of governance in a negative light, a serious Ukrainian reform policy would undermine the Russian goal of perpetuating and maximizing Ukraine’s isolation from Europe. Various Russian (and some Western) analysts have lauded Russia’s military interventions in Crimea and the Donbas for supposedly preventing Ukrainian accession to Euro-Atlantic organizations, particularly NATO, both in the short and long terms. There was, of course, no short-term prospect of Ukraine joining NATO in 2014, and arguably the biggest impediment to Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration has not been the reality or threat of Russian military action but the country’s unreformed, oligarch-ridden legal, social, and economic framework. Under current conditions, it is difficult to imagine any country ratifying Ukraine’s accession to either NATO or the European Union. Therefore, a comprehensive reform effort by Zelensky would give prospective Ukrainian membership in Euro-Atlantic organizations a plausibility that it has heretofore lacked. Moreover, a sustained Ukrainian-Western rapprochement on the basis of root-and-branch reform, laying a solid foundation for eventual accession to Euro-Atlantic organizations, would not only undermine the conceit that Russia can thwart Ukraine’s European vocation (which ultimately can only be thwarted by Ukrainians themselves), but also devalue the occupied Donbas as an instrument of Russian policy with respect to Kyiv.
Second, regardless of the success of Ukrainian reform under Zelensky, the election of a Russophone President will probably prove—once again—to be a bitter disappointment for Moscow, changing at best the tone and the pace but not the overall trajectory of the Russo-Ukrainian “long goodbye.”
Zelensky has not repudiated his predecessor’s legacy when it comes to consolidating the Ukrainian national identity, nor does he have any domestic political reason to do so. He might ratchet down nationalist rhetoric and relax the pace of linguistic Ukrainianization, but he will not reverse the inexorable improvement in the population’s overall Ukrainian-language facility, nor the increased use of Ukrainian in public discourse at the expense of Russian. While some expansion of Russo-Ukrainian economic ties might be feasible, it remains to be seen how much either Moscow or the Ukrainian parliament would permit the restoration of trade or investment. Indeed, the announced restrictions on Russian hydrocarbon sales to Ukraine suggest a tightening rather than a loosening of the economic screws.
With regard to the simmering conflict in the Donbas, Zelensky inherits the same set of unpalatable options that Poroshenko faced. He can: recognize the independence of the Russian-controlled separatist entities and let them go; accept terms for their reintegration into Ukraine that would leave them under Moscow’s effective control and give them a veto over national policy; or continue the desultory shelling and positional maneuvering that have characterized the stalemated conflict since 2015. Other theoretical options—Russian abandonment of the separatists or a Ukrainian Reconquista of the Donbas—are completely unrealistic within the timeframe of Zelensky’s term of office. His default option is therefore likely to be further strengthening of the Ukrainian army, military cooperation with Western partners, and maintenance of the status quo along the line of contact. Tinkering with the negotiating format will have no effect whatsoever.
In sum, under Zelensky we might anticipate some easing of Russo-Ukrainian tensions without, however, any change to positions of principle, much as in Georgia following the 2012 change of regime—what Vladimir Socor has dubbed “coexistence without real normalization.”
This outcome should surprise no one, since Zelensky’s election in no way alters the underlying dynamic of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. In his public pronouncements since the Ukrainian elections, Putin has doubled down on his flawed notion that Russians and Ukrainians are “really” one nation—which is to say that Ukrainians are really just Russians. The denigration implicit in Putin’s thinking is exemplified in widespread Russian ridicule of all things Ukrainian, particularly the language. While deprecating Ukraine is a tried-and-true method for pandering to the sense of Russian superiority, this overbearing “older brother” complex sits rather badly with Ukrainians, even Russophone ones. Ukrainians, by and large, remain well-disposed toward Russians, if not necessarily toward Kremlin policies. Most of them would warmly welcome a normalization of Russo-Ukrainian ties, but few seem prepared to accept the loss of their national identity as the price for doing so.
The conferring of autocephaly on the Orthodox Church of Ukraine by the Patriarch of Constantinople in January is emblematic of the conundrum facing the Kremlin. The creation of a canonical Orthodox Church of Ukraine independent of Moscow unfolded over a period of many months, during which the vociferous and increasingly frantic objections of the Russian government and the Moscow Patriarchate abjectly failed to derail the process.
Subsequently very little has changed outwardly in Ukraine. The new Orthodox Church of Ukraine has absorbed most of the Orthodox parishes that had previously declined to accept the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarch. Some 500 parishes have reportedly switched allegiance from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, but they represent only about 4 percent of the Moscow Patriarchate’s 12,000 parishes in the country. A stampede of parishes from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is unlikely.
The cumulative psychological impact over time, however, is likely to be profound. Ukrainian Orthodox believers can now worship in a national church that is fully canonical. It is no longer possible to imagine that the heretofore-schismatic Ukrainian Orthodox churches could be nudged, gently or more forcefully, back into the bosom of the Moscow Patriarchate. The latter will retain a substantial footprint in Ukraine, with sizeable congregations of ethnic Russians as well as non-Russians who prefer the liturgy in Church Slavonic rather than Ukrainian. However, the supposition that Orthodoxy in Ukraine is merely and exclusively a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church has been demolished forever. The umbilical cord has been cut and cannot be rejoined.
Even for non-Orthodox Ukrainians, the battle for autocephaly was a gratifying opportunity to cock a snook at Moscow. It was a prime example of an all-too-frequent experience for Putin in the post-Soviet space: failing to get his way no matter how high the priority or how hard he tries. For Westerners inclined to view Putin as an evil genius manipulating our political systems in frightening and unfavorable ways, his inability to block autocephaly for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine—a country where the Kremlin has a vast array of levers at its disposal and where the stakes could hardly be higher—is a stunning and salutary display of impotence.
Hence, Moscow’s dyspeptic and even spiteful reaction to Zelensky’s election is a token of business as usual in post-Soviet Russo-Ukrainian relations. After an unbroken string of Ukrainian leaders—even avowedly pro-Russian ones—who failed to meet Russian expectations, the Kremlin is understandably reluctant to indulge in wishful thinking. Unfortunately, this clear-eyed, even praiseworthy realism about the short-term possibilities for relations with Ukraine is undermined by the illusions that appear to cloud longer-term Russian thinking about “Little Russia.” This fantasizing includes: nostalgia for an Eastern Slavic unity that arguably never was, and that certainly hasn’t existed for centuries; a pious belief that the persistent Russophilia of so many Ukrainians provides a promising basis for their assimilation and absorption by the Russians; and the sullen conviction that the Ukrainian nation and state are artificial entities created and sustained by malevolent Westerners.
Alas, Russian maximalism with regard to Ukraine will always bump up against the awkward conviction of most Ukrainians, even Russophone ones, that they constitute a separate nation—one that possesses its own cherished linguistic and cultural attributes, and has national interests that do not necessarily coincide with Russia’s. Because there is probably little he can or would even want to do to change this dynamic, Zelensky will inevitably disappoint and frustrate Moscow. More alarmingly, far-reaching reforms could create a Ukraine perceived not only as more democratic than Russia but also as more just. In this regard, Zelensky the Russophone populist, much more so than Poroshenko the oligarchic nationalist, threatens to wreak serious havoc on Putinism.
No wonder the Kremlin has given Zelensky such a chilly reception. However, the comedian just might have the last laugh.