After the recent elections in Ukraine, Russian state TV channels were quick to celebrate the electoral defeat of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who for the past five years has been one of the main targets of Kremlin propaganda. So far the winner, actor and TV show host, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has not been cast in a negative light.
It seems Russian state media is approaching coverage of his victory rather carefully. This, despite the fact that Zelenskyy made it clear that he won’t be making any concessions to Russia. Interestingly enough, there have been some among the Russian leadership that have even shown optimism about his presidency. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, for example, wrote in a Facebook post that despite Zelenskyy’s anti-Russian rhetoric, he still hopes that the two countries will be able to engage in constructive dialogue. So whence the high hopes?
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It seems that Moscow is taking the same approach to Zelenskyy as it has with US President Donald Trump. If you watch any of the pro-Kremlin talk shows, you’d think Donald Trump is “our guy” who is currently fighting against the enemy – the American bureaucracy and deep state, the Congress and the mainstream media (very much the angle Fox News takes).
Zelenskyy appears to be a Ukrainian Trump – a showman, challenging the establishment, who has no political career and no concrete political platform or ideology. In both cases, the Kremlin is hoping to use this lack of political experience to restart relations.
In the case of Trump, it became quite clear, quite quickly, that the friendship won’t work out, but the proscription on criticising the US president in the state media remained – perhaps because an indifferent Trump is less dangerous than an offended Trump. In the case of Zelenskyy, there are a lot of questions that remain unanswered. How is his administration going to treat the Minsk agreements? Will it try to restore trade relations, relaunch flights between the two countries, and ease the visa regime for Russian citizens? What will happen with the Russian language question? Most importantly, how will it continue to draw attention to Russian aggression in the West, including through court cases in the International Court of Justice in the Hague and other institutions?
Although officially there is much talk about “restarting dialogue” with Ukraine, it is important to understand that for Putin, improving relations not only is not a priority but it, in fact, could be detrimental. His propaganda machine needs a target, which to constantly portray as a failed state and use it in order to scare the Russian population into appreciation of the current Russian regime.
If relations improve and the negative propaganda has to stop and if the situation in Ukraine improves and becomes, say, as good as in Poland or the Baltic states, then the Russian public could start thinking about the benefits of democracy and a coloured revolution. For this reason, a reconciliation with Ukraine even on Russia’s terms is rather dangerous for Putin, especially now that his rating has fallen to a record low.
At the same time, very bad relations with Kiev are also a problem. If there is one question that brings together all 27 states of the EU, it is the sanctions against Russia; for five years now, they have unanimously agreed on extending them. The need for sanctions is also one of the few issues of agreement between Washington and Brussels these days.
An even bigger problem for Putin is the fact that because of Ukraine, none of the Western countries can go back to “business as usual” with Russia. Other transgressions may be forgotten, but not the occupation of Ukrainian territory.
In this sense, the ideal scenario for Putin is for the frozen conflict to persist but without any escalation and a certain level of engagement. But would Ukraine fall for that? Would it stop making noise in the West and engage with Russia, so that European countries can start dealing with Moscow again without risking their reputation? Would Zelenskyy allow for such a development? A lot of Ukrainians voted for Poroshenko fearing exactly such scenario playing out if his opponent were to win, but it is quite difficult to believe this would happen.
Yes, Zelenskyy indeed does not have a prepared programme and it’s not clear how well he actually understands the political scene, and specifically Ukrainian-Russian relations. He portrayed himself as the “average Ukrainian”, and an average Ukrainian doesn’t have necessarily understand all political subtleties. The populist Zelenskyy used his lack of experience and status as a political outsider to his advantage in the electoral campaign, just as Trump did back in 2016, and as a result, many of his opponents believe that would make him susceptible to the manipulations of the Kremlin and oligarchs. But paradoxically, it might be populism that ends up saving Zelenskyy from such a dangerous scenario.
Populists are those politicians who make promises that appeal to ordinary people and they tend to be committed to fulfilling them. Trump, for example, is being criticised not for failing to fulfil his campaign promises, but actually for trying to realise them in full, whether it’s the wall on the border with Mexico, the protectionist trade policies, migration bans or the cutting of social programmes. Zelenskyy, for his part, has promised to rein in oligarchs, not to deal with any of Putin’s “friends”, and allay the fears some Ukrainians (especially in the east) have about joining NATO.
Тhe main difference between Zelenskyy and Trump is that they face two very different political systems. The US president is well aware that, in the worst-case scenario, he would simply lose his re-election bid. The system of checks and balances based on various state institutions limits his power but does not threaten him: impeachment by the Congress is highly unlikely, especially after the Mueller probe did not result in an obstruction of justice charge.
In Ukraine, on the other hand, the system of checks and balances is not based on institutions – because they are still weak – but on the streets. Popular mobilisation against the missteps of unpopular presidents has already led two successful revolutions in the past. In this sense, Zelenskyy has more political space to act, but he also risks a lot: losing the presidency and his freedom. Any sign of a rapprochement with Putin and the return of the oligarchy to the pre-2014 scale would cross the red line and provoke another uprising at the Maidan.
Ruling politicians Georgia have been in a similar situation for the past 10 years. Since the 2008 Georgian-Russian war and the Russian annexation of territories, no Georgian political power has dared raise the question of starting a dialogue with Putin. Despite some persistent political problems, going back to the previous political system which was prone to Russian interference is impossible. Today the main guarantee for stability in Georgia is not the justice system or the parliament, but the streets.
This, of course, does not mean that Zelenskyy would necessarily be a good president. But he has the opportunity not only to strengthen Ukraine’s democratic institutions, but also to unify the country.
It is important to note that Zelenskyy managed to win all regions except Lvov in the west, meaning he managed to overcome the political division between west and east, which had been deepened by the war and the reckless use of ethnopolitics by various powers (including Poroshenko who resorted to it during his desperate presidential campaign).
If the new Ukrainian president manages to maintain this popularity and cement the unity of the nation, then this would undermine even more the Kremlin’s attempts to manipulate public opinion in Ukraine. In other words, if Zelenskyy is successful in keeping the country united and escalating pressure on Russia, the Kremlin might soon come to bitterly regret Poroshenko’s defeat.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.