Thursday, April 18, 2019

Russia in Review: Ukraine Elections Update

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Special Topic Update: Ukraine's Presidential Election (read the previous Russia in Review here)

Authors: Andrea Snyder and Darina Regio

Key Takeaway: Ukraine will hold the runoff round of its presidential election on Sunday, April 21, 2019. Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is the leading candidate in this election. His lack of known political positions will likely present an opportunity for both domestic oligarchs and the Kremlin to influence the domestic and foreign policies of Ukraine. Ukrainian reformers must compete for influence over both Zelensky and the Ukrainian Parliament in order to protect Ukraine’s reform gains and overall trajectory towards the West

Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is the leading candidate in the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election but still lacks a coherent policy agenda. Zelensky has yet to publish any detailed policy platform and his priorities remain largely unknown. His pre-election program and alleged ten first priorities once in office are superficial, lack concrete details, and address only broad issues such as populist promises for direct democracy through referendums and an end to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.[1] His advisors have been the main source of the sparse available information on his potential policy priorities while the candidate himself has remained relatively silent in the public sphere. He has avoided public discussions and failed to attend a debate with current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on April 14.[2] He remains vulnerable to exploitation by external and internal actors due to his lack of political experience in Kyiv.

Oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi holds significant leverage over Zelensky. He will likely exert this influence to advance his own business interests. Kolomoyskyi is a key rival of Poroshenko who has reportedly bankrolled Zelensky. Zelensky’s production studio operates under Kolomoyskyi’s 1+1 TV Channel and Zelensky has flown to Geneva and Tel Aviv – Kolomoyskyi’s places of residence during his de facto exile – at least thirteen times since 2017, according to an investigative report by Radio Svoboda.[3] Kolomoyskiyi’s lawyer Andriy Bohdan accompanied Zelensky on at least five of these trips.[4] Bohdan also allegedly met with the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) on behalf of Zelensky on April 3.

Ihor Kolomoyskyi lost major assets under Poroshenko including his controlling stakes in PrivatBank and Ukrnafta as well as his governorship of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.[5] Kolomoyskyi will likely attempt to leverage his influence over Zelensky to regain his role in the banking and energy sectors of Ukraine. Kolomoyskyi is already attempting to regain control of PrivatBank, which Poroshenko nationalized after revelations of large-scale fraud in 2016. Kyiv’s District Administrative Court ruled the nationalization illegal on April 18, three days before the second round of the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election. The decision is likely to be appealed. Kolomoyskyi may have facilitated the timing of the decision in order to transfer blame for the privatization to Poroshenko rather than Zelensky. Kolomoyskyi may also attempt to overturn a law that limited his control over Ukrnafta in 2015 using his sway over Zelensky and the Ukrainian Parliament. Kolomoyskyi has allegedly already begun influencing talks regarding a parliamentary coalition under Zelensky.[6] If successful, these policies would erode many of the reformist gains made by Ukraine since the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014.

Zelensky’s lack of foreign policy expertise also presents key opportunities to the Kremlin. His rhetoric on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine reflects a fundamental lack of understanding regarding Russia’s goals in Ukraine. Zelensky has stated that Ukraine should immediately implement a ceasefire and stressed that he will “meet halfway” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.[7] These statements ignore numerous failed ceasefire attempts violated by Russia and its proxies in Eastern Ukraine, directly supporting the narrative framing of the Kremlin. Zelensky has since recalibrated to focus on direct talks with Russia through the Normandy Format – including the potential addition of the United States and United Kingdom – to resolve the war in Eastern Ukraine.[8] His advisors likely pushed him to alter his rhetoric to avoid alienating voters in Ukraine.

Zelensky has also stated that he would maintain the course of Ukraine towards the EU and NATO.[9] However, he has also proposed to hold a nationwide referendum on the question of whether Ukraine should join NATO.[10] This referendum would be a regression from the Ukrainian Constitution as amended by the Ukrainian Parliament on February 7, which formally declares Ukraine’s intent to pursue membership in the EU and NATO. The Kremlin would most certainly target any referendum with disinformation and electoral manipulation to orient Ukraine away from NATO.

Kolomoyskyi is likely interested in preventing further expansion of Russia’s influence in Ukraine, but he is ultimately a pragmatic actor focused on his business interests. He may be willing to make concessions or even strike a deal with the Kremlin in order to secure his economic interests in Ukraine. Ukraine under Zelensky thus will likely face converging pressures from anti-reformist measures driven by Kolomoyskyi as well as intensified efforts by the Kremlin to pull it further away from integration with NATO and the EU.

[1] [“Election Program of Volodymyr Olekcandrovich Zelensky,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, Accessed February 27, 2019,; Yuriy Smirnov, [“Zelensky’s Plan. The First Ten Decisions in Case of Victory,”] Liga, April 10, 2019, https://www.liga(.)net/politics/articles/plan-zelenskogo-pervye-desyat-resheniy-v-sluchae-pobedy.
[2] [“Media Movement Calls on Zelensky to Go to the Press Before April 19,”] Radio Svoboda, April 16, 2019, https://www.radiosvoboda(.)org/a/news-mediaruh-zaklykaye-zelenskogo-vyity-do-presy/29883668.html.
[3] [“For Two Years, Zelensky Thirteen Times Flew to Geneva and Tel Aviv Where Kolomoyskyi Lives - ‘Schemes’,”] Radio Svoboda, April 11, 2019, https://www.radiosvoboda(.)org/a/news-schemes-zelenskyy-perelyoty/29875430.html.
[4] Ibid.
[5] “Rule by Oligarchs: Kiev Appoints Billionaires to Govern East,” Russia Today, March 4, 2014, https://www.rt(.)com/news/ukraine-oligarch-rule-governors-512/; Artem Ilyin, “Ukrainian Oligarch Kolomoyskyi’s Diminishing Influence in the Oil Market,” Hromadske, June 6, 2018, https://en.hromadske(.)ua/posts/ukrainian-oligarch-kolomoiskys-diminishing-influence-in-the-oil-market; [“Kolomoyskyi’s Puppet: The Story of a Ukrainian Oligarch Who Supported Zelensky,”] The Bell, April 1, 2019, https://thebell(.)io/marionetka-kolomojskogo-istoriya-ukrainskogo-oligarha-kotoryj-podderzhal-zelenskogo.
[6] [“Negotiations on a Coalition under Zelensky Began in the Rada - Sources,”] RBK-Ukraine, April 11, 2019, https://www.rbc(.)ua/rus/news/rade-nachalis-peregovory-koalitsii-zelenskogo-1554965733.html.
[7] Roman Kravets, [“Volodymyr Zelensky: April 1 - An Honorable Day to Win the Clown,”] Ukrayinska Pravda, January 21, 2019,; Sevodnya, [“An Exclusive Interview with Volodymyr Zelensky,”] YouTube, April 7, 2019,; [“Zelensky is Ready to Negotiate with Putin,”] Korrespondent, April 7, 2019, https://korrespondent(.)net/ukraine/vibory2019/4083836-zelenskyi-hotov-k-perehovoram-s-putynym.
[8] Yuriy Smirnov, [“Zelensky’s Plan. The First Ten Decisions in Case of Victory,”] Liga, April 10, 2019, https://www.liga(.)net/politics/articles/plan-zelenskogo-pervye-desyat-resheniy-v-sluchae-pobedy; [“Zelensky Voiced His Position on the Elections in the Donbass and the Movement Towards NATO,”] Ukrayinska Pravda, April 13, 2019,
[9] “Zelensky Promises to Maintain Ukraine’s Course Toward NATO and EU and Protect Foreign Investments,” UA Wire, April 8, 2019, https://uawire(.)org/zelensky-promises-to-maintain-ukraine-s-course-toward-nato-and-eu-and-protect-foreign-investments.
[10] [“Election Program of Volodymyr Olekcandrovich Zelensky,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, Accessed February 27, 2019,