By Daniel Twining
Ukrainians on Sunday will choose their next president in a runoff vote.
The international media has largely focused on the horse race between the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, and the actor Volodymyr Zelensky, who so compellingly plays an incorruptible president in an acclaimed television drama that he now leads in the polls for the actual office. But much more is at stake than a contest of personalities.
Among the post-Soviet satellite republics, Ukraine has the largest population and the most strategic importance. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to reconstitute the Russian Empire will not work if Ukraine continues to move toward the West. The deepening of Ukrainian democracy also represents a mortal threat to Putin’s authoritarian rule at home: If Ukrainians, with all their ties to Russia, can hold their leaders accountable through democratic institutions and depose them in free elections, why can’t Russians?
Polling by the International Republican Institute, which is participating in international election observation missions deployed to monitor the vote, shows that Ukrainians overwhelmingly want to be part of Europe rather than oriented towards Russia. As Mayor of Kiev Vitali Klitschko told me, “We grew up under Soviet rule. We suffered from it. Why would we want to go back to it?”
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine was richer than neighboring Poland. Poland is now some three times richer than Ukraine measured by income per capita, with world-class infrastructure and a sophisticated economy subsidized by European Union investment. By contrast, in Ukraine, corrupt politicians, weak institutions, and Russian subversion have stymied growth.
It is hard for Ukraine to move West with Russia on its back. Five years ago, the then-pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, abruptly canceled an association agreement with the European Union. Ukrainians took to the streets by the millions to demand their leader uphold Ukraine’s European destiny and to oppose his efforts to pivot to Moscow. The corrupt Yanukovych ultimately fled the country for exile in Russia.
That was Ukraine’s second democratic revolution since independence from Moscow, and not the last time Ukraine’s politicians let down its citizens. Ukraine does not need more street revolutions—it needs politicians to put citizens’ welfare above their own. But oligarchs who control substantial media and business empires, and who have manipulated public office for private gain, have traditionally dominated Ukraine’s political system.
International Republican Institute surveys consistently show that voters’ top concerns are the war against Russia in the east of the country followed by corruption and the economy. The Russian occupation has distorted Ukraine’s politics. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, more than 10,000 Ukrainians have been killed in a war that has now lasted longer than World War I.
Russian forces occupy Crimea on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. Russian-sponsored forces control the Donbass, a vast area in Eastern Ukraine. Last November, after the Russian navy partially blockaded coastal areas that are Ukraine’s economic lifeline, Poroshenko, with parliament’s backing, temporarily declared martial law—such was the threat to his country’s integrity. Ukraine is spending heavily on its defense. As a result, per capita incomes have dropped since the Russian invasion, further discrediting political leaders among a public living in what has become the poorest country in Europe.
The Kremlin assault on Ukraine continues not just on the front lines of the Donbass but in cyberspace. In Ukraine’s last presidential election, in 2014, Russian hackers took down the election commission’s website in an effort to disrupt and discredit the vote. Russian propaganda and disinformation have been rife during the Ukrainian presidential campaign, a problem amplified by the fact that many Ukrainians speak Russian, blurring the line between domestic media and foreign propaganda.
Fake news sponsored by Moscow targets not only Ukrainian voters but also, in different forms, Ukraine’s allies in the West: If the Kremlin can convince U.S. and European leaders that Ukraine is a divided country and failed state, Moscow can erode support for Western assistance to and cooperation with Ukraine, furthering Moscow’s strategic interests in trapping the country in Europe’s gray zone beyond NATO’s borders.
Sunday’s election marks a first: Every previous Ukrainian presidential contest has pitted a pro-Russian leader against a pro-Western one. But the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine since 2014 has backfired. In a break from the past, neither of the leading presidential candidates promises a closer relationship with Moscow. Ukrainians overwhelmingly want to move West, and both candidates say they want to anchor Ukraine in the free world, not in Russia’s orbit.
Voters’ disgust with Ukraine’s political class could produce a surprise. Zelensky is an actor who plays a president, and on screen, he indignantly stands up to corrupt politicians and fights for citizens’ rights against those of oligarchic elites. Ukrainians are so hungry for change that he is leading in many polls, despite his lack of experience in politics.
Whoever wins this election, the United States has a compelling interest in supporting the Ukrainian people’s aspirations to live in a country that is not governed by corrupt politicians who answer to oligarchs, that through good governance can finally catch up to European levels of prosperity, and that finally escapes the Soviet shadow through partnership with the European Union and NATO.
Much is at stake, for Ukraine and the West: The front line in the struggle between the free world and Putin’s shadow empire lies in Ukraine, and its people are clear about which side they are on.