Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Russia's Long View on Ukraine's Elections

By Nataliya Bugayova and Darina Regio

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin failed to undermine trust in the electoral process in Ukraine but still managed to advance its overall interests in the first round of the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Elections. Ukraine successfully held an election termed free and fair by international observers on March 31. Populist Volodymyr Zelensky won the most votes by a large margin followed by the incumbent Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Russian state media maintained a relatively neutral tone towards Zelensky even as it continued systematic attacks against Poroshenko. The Kremlin will likely reject the result and challenge the overall legitimacy of the election if Poroshenko wins the second round of voting scheduled for April 21.

Populist Volodymyr Zelensky won the first round of Ukraine’s 2019 Presidential Election by a large margin over incumbent Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Zelensky - a political newcomer and professional comedian - won 30% of the vote. Poroshenko received 16% followed by former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 13% and pro-Russian Yuriy Boyko with 12%.[1] Poroshenko and Zelensky will advanced to a second round of voting scheduled for April 21.[2]

The Kremlin failed to undermine trust in the electoral process in Ukraine but is nonetheless on trajectory to gain ground in the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) previously assessed that most of the presidential candidates are amenable in some degree to the Kremlin. Poroshenko is the least favorable option for Russia given his intent to pursue the further integration of Ukraine with the EU and NATO. The Kremlin has also likely exhausted much of its leverage over Poroshenko. Russia has thus conducted a systematic disinformation campaign to undermine Poroshenko and erode his popular support. Poroshenko now stands to lose reelection or win only by a slim margin. The Kremlin by contrast likely perceives an opportunity with Zelensky. Ukraine’s future hinges on the critical question of who will shape Zelensky’s agenda if he becomes the next President of Ukraine. Zelensky has no fully articulated policy positions and lacks a cohesive team or significant financial resources. Outside actors could thus influence his agenda if he wins the Ukrainian Presidency. Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoyskyi already reportedly supports Zelensky.[3] The Kremlin will likely invest significant resources of its own to influence his advisors and policy positions. Zelensky is likely most vulnerable to such an effort at this moment. The Kremlin - regardless of the outcome - stands to benefit from both a weaker Poroshenko and improved positions for populists and other political actors in Ukraine sympathetic to Russia.

The Kremlin also positioned itself to increase its influence over the equally important race for the Ukrainian Parliament scheduled for October 27. Tymoshenko has stated that after her loss she will shift focus to the 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections.[4] She may attempt to secure a parliamentary coalition with Zelensky if he wins the Ukrainian Presidency as a potential path to reclaiming her role as Ukrainian Prime Minister. Zelensky has thus far denied any interest in collaborating with Tymoshenko.[5] This calculus may change. The Kremlin also managed to advance the political positions of several candidates openly sympathetic to Russia, including Yuriy Boyko and Oleksandr Vilkul. Boyko and Vilkul are capitalizing on the visibility and popular support gained in the presidential race to advance their positions ahead of the 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Elections. A Ukrainian Parliament with an expanded populist coalition and an increased role for politicians favorable to Russia would be a dangerous outcome for reform in Ukraine. Ukraine’s ability to preserve its long-term sovereignty and sustain its democratic gains following the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution depends in large part on the presence of reformists in the Ukrainian Parliament.

The outcome of the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Elections will depend on Zelensky and Poroshenko’s ability to maintain their political bases while courting supporters of the other candidates. Zelensky campaigned as the anti-establishment candidate and won twice the support of Poroshenko. Poroshenko will likely respond by highlighting Zelensky’s lack of experience in national security and foreign policy issues. Zelensky will face pressure to present his team and produce a more defined stance on key flashpoints such as relations with Russia, Ukraine’s integration with the West, and the future of the occupied Donbas and Crimean Peninsula. Poroshenko’s ability to win will also depend on his success in attracting young voters, to whom he issued a direct appeal after the first round of voting.[6] Poroshenko may also attempt to reemphasize his willingness to counter corruption by dismissing some of his allegedly corrupt allies from the Government of Ukraine. Supporters of Tymoshenko and Boyko will likely decide the outcome of the election and both candidates were outspoken critics of Poroshenko. Part of Tymoshenko’s constituency in Western Ukraine will nonetheless likely vote for Poroshenko given his clear stance against Russia. Another key variable will be Poroshenko’s ability to attract additional voters who did not vote in the first round.

The Kremlin is setting additional conditions to contest the election as illegitimate if Ukraine reelects Poroshenko. ISW previously assessed that Russia has laid the groundwork to challenge the legitimacy of the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election. The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) has submitted a draft decree proposing not to recognize the results of the election to the Russian Parliament. The decree claimed widespread election violations including a ban on election observers from Russia and the exclusion of voters from occupied Eastern Ukraine.[7] Russia is likely to also point towards minor violations detailed by the OSCE Election Observation Mission in Ukraine. The Russian Parliament is currently considering the decree but it will not come to a vote until after the second-round election in Ukraine.[8] The Kremlin’s decision to delay this vote until the second round and the neutral tone its media has taken towards Zelensky likely indicates tacit approval of a victory by Zelensky. If the Kremlin alternatively believes that Poroshenko holds a high chance of winning the election, it will likely enact the legislation in order to stir political instability and damage his candidacy or hinder his continued rule of Ukraine.

International monitors have nonetheless provided no solid basis for questioning the legitimacy of the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election. The OSCE Election Observation Mission in Ukraine, International Republican Institute, and Canadian Monitoring Mission all deemed the election free and fair.[9] The OSCE noted that the elections “could not be organized” in Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine given the “context of ongoing armed conflict and other hostilities in the east of the country and the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by the Russian Federation.”[10] Russia holds no valid legal and ethical ground to denounce the elections on this basis given that the Russian Armed Forces occupied these regions and support militant groups against the Government of Ukraine. The OSCE also noted that the Ukrainian Parliament had designated Russia as an aggressor state and prohibited its citizens from observing elections in Ukraine - a designation “at odds with OSCE Copenhagen Document.”[11] This criticism is odd given its implication that a state under armed attack by another state is obligated to allow the aggressor state to observe its elections. The OSCE also stated existing legislation did not regulate media coverage of Zelensky’s unique methods of political campaigning - which relied only on his appearances as an actor and comedian rather than traditional campaign rallies. The Kremlin will exploit these findings if it chooses to denounce the legitimacy of Poroshenko or the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election.

The Kremlin is taking a long-term approach to its influence operations in Ukraine. The Kremlin understands that it will not immediately be able to reorient Ukraine back into the orbit of Russia. It is therefore focusing on improving its overall position in the political landscape of Ukraine during the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential and Parliamentary Elections rather than directing all of its support towards a single specific candidate or political party. Reformist actors both inside and outside of Ukraine must maintain the utmost vigilance and unity to ensure that these elections remain free and fair and that reform-minded politicians are well represented in the next Ukrainian Parliament and Presidential Administration.

[1] [“Ukrainian Presidential Elections 2019,”] Ukrainian Central Election Commission, April 2, 2019,
[2] “Ukraine, Presidential Election, 31 March 2019: Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions,” OSCE, April 1, 2019,
[3] [“Kolomoyskiyi’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/; [“Masks Off: Kolomoyskyi Publicly Declared Support for Zelensky,”] ReplyUA, March 5, 2019, https://replyua(.)net/news/136508-maski-sbrosheny-kolomoyskiy-publichno-zayavil-o-podderzhke-zelenskogo.html; [“Zelensky’s Business with Kolomoyskyi and 100 Poroshenko Companies,”] Novaya Gazeta, March 29, 2019, https://www.novayagazeta(.)ru/articles/2019/03/29/80042-biznes-zelenskogo-s-kolomoyskim-i-100-kompaniy-poroshenko; [“Kolomoyskyi Talks About What Ticks Him About Zelensky and Tymoshenko,”] Ukrayinska Pravda, March 22, 2019, https://www.pravda(.); [“The Headquarters of Zelensky Denied That They Take Money from the Oligarch Kolomoyskyi,”] Regnum, March 18, 2019, https://regnum(.)ru/news/2592928.html.
[4] [“Tymoshenko: We Lost One Change, But There Is Another One,”] Ukrayinska Pravda, April 2, 2019,
[5] [“Zelensky Ruled Out Unification with Tymoshenko,”] RBC-Ukraine, March 31, 2019,
[6] [“Presidential Elections 2019 Chronicle,”] Ukrayinska Pravda, March 31, 2019,
[7] “Ukraine, Presidential Election, 31 March 2019: Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions,” OSCE, April 1, 2019,
[8] [“Source: State Duma Supports Bill On Non-Recognition of Ukrainian Election Results,”] RIA Novosti, April 1, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20190401/1552296274.html; [“State Duma Is Considering Ukrainian Elections Non-Recognition Law,”] Pravda, April 1, 2019,https://www.pravda(.)ru/news/politics/1411439-gosduma/; [“Duma Council Has Not Yet Submitted for Consideration a Statement on the Non-Recognition of the Election Results in Ukraine,”] TASS, April 1, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/politika/6283190.
[9] “Ukraine, Presidential Election, 31 March 2019: Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions,” OSCE, April 1, 2019,; “Ukraine Election: High Turnout And Run-Off Election Attest To Strong Democratic Process,” IRI, April 1, 2019,; “Mission Canada Preliminary Statement: Ukraine Presidential Election, 1 April 2019,” CANADEM, April 1, 2019,
[10] “Ukraine, Presidential Election, 31 March 2019: Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions,” OSCE, April 1, 2019,
[11] “Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the OSCE,” OSCE, January 26, 1990,