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Far from a pro-Russian dove, Volodymyr Zelensky enters office a Russia hawk

Article by Lincoln Pigman

May 20, 2019

Far from a pro-Russian dove, Volodymyr Zelensky enters office a Russia hawk

With his inauguration today, the presidency of Volodymyr Zelensky is upon us. Zelensky, a political outsider who ran on an explicitly anti-establishment platform and ousted incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in a second round of voting that saw Zelensky receive nearly three-quarters of the national vote, has been inaugurated and is likely to set about making major policy and personnel changes upon assuming control of the Bankova. That certainty has the showman’s critics concerned, not least because of its implications for the country’s Russia policy.

After all, Zelensky’s detractors spent the final weeks of the presidential race charging that he was at best too weak and inexperienced to stand up to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, and at worst on the same page as Putin on key issues and possibly in the pocket of the Kremlin. Poroshenko and his allies redirected their attacks toward Zelensky following the elimination of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the first round of voting, distributing anti-Zelensky campaign materials that warned of a Russian ‘revanche’ in the event of a Zelensky victory and depicted the April 21st vote as ‘a decisive choice’ between Putin and Poroshenko. [1, 2] Poroshenko personally declared that Zelensky’s election would turn Ukraine into a Russian colony and threaten ‘the existence of the state’, while his ministers reportedly rushed to ‘safeguard NATO and Euro-Atlantic integration’ lest Zelensky attempt to turn back the clock if elected. [3, 4, 5]

Zelensky has sought to defy his opponents’ claims by taking a hawkish turn and adopting a highly confrontational stance toward Russia. Having initially emphasised the necessity of direct talks with Putin, Zelensky challenged Poroshenko and his much-vaunted national security credentials from the right when the two candidates debated each other in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium on April 19th. [6] He charged Poroshenko with mismanaging the war effort and failing to bring the conflict to an end in his five years in office, and assailed him for being too friendly with Moscow where a more dovish candidate might have called for diplomacy and engagement with Russia and possibly even the separatist authorities – options backed by 75 percent and 55.4 percent of Ukrainians, respectively. [7]

Zelensky scrutinised and questioned Poroshenko’s interactions with Putin and implied that it was Poroshenko’s business ties to Russia, rather than Zelensky’s, that presented a liability. This, at a time when many Russian political analysts welcomed a Poroshenko defeat on the grounds that the incumbent president was impossible for the Kremlin to negotiate with. [8] Zelensky was also the first candidate to mention Putin in the debate, and Poroshenko – widely seen and sometimes derided as the war candidate to Zelensky’s peace candidate – found himself having to assert his toughness on Russia. Finally, Zelensky made sure to repeatedly praise Ukraine’s military, and while he caught flak from the military for referring to Russian-backed separatists as ‘rebels’ during the debate, voters appeared to meet Poroshenko’s repeated references to Zelensky’s alleged draft-dodging with indifference. [9] All in all, the Zelensky of the second round of voting looked nothing like the dove described by his detractors, and voters took notice.

Zelensky faced his first test as a statesman – and a Russia hawk – well before taking the reins of Ukraine’s foreign policy. Soon after his electoral triumph, the Kremlin, which declined to congratulate Zelensky, declared that it would be simplifying access to Russian citizenship for citizens of Eastern Ukraine’s two separatist republics. In comments to the Guardian, an adviser to Kremlin official Vladislav Surkov said that the announcement had been postponed until after the April 21st vote so as to not give Poroshenko ammunition. [10] Moscow then doubled down, openly contemplating extending its controversial offer to all Ukrainian citizens. [11] In response, Zelensky targeted Moscow where it hurts: regime security. In a Facebook post written in Russian as well as Ukrainian, Zelensky, who commands considerably more good will among Russians than his predecessor, attacked the Kremlin’s domestic legitimacy, sarcastically listing the advantages of Russian citizenship: ‘the right to be arrested for peaceful protest’ and ‘the right to not have free and competitive elections’, like the one he had just won. [12]

He added that his administration would offer all post-Soviet dissidents, not just Russians, asylum and even citizenship. Whether or not Zelensky ultimately delivers on that promise, his talk of Ukraine’s ‘mission to serve as an example of democracy for post-Soviet countries’ and ‘provide protection, asylum, and Ukrainian citizenship to all those who are prepared to fight for freedom’ and ‘battle side by side with us for our freedom and yours’ surely captured the attention of the region’s authoritarians, both inside and beyond the Kremlin. To be sure, Ukraine granted asylum and citizenship to some Russian dissidents under Poroshenko, who made one of his final acts as president the granting of citizenship to the exiled Russian lawmaker Ilya Ponomarev. [13] Still, his promotion of a particular vision of Ukrainian national identity at home limited Kiev’s soft power reach in Russia. That is likely to change under Zelensky, especially if what is effectively a democracy promotion effort continues upon his inauguration.

In this endeavour, Zelensky is certain to benefit from the fact that he appears to favour a vision of Ukrainian national identity that is markedly more inclusive than that of his predecessor and which seems to eschew the memory and other culture wars that escalated on Poroshenko’s watch. ‘When we name so many streets [and] bridges by the same name, this is not quite right’, Zelensky recently said in reference to Stepan Bandera, adding that the reverence of some Ukrainians for the nationalist leader and World War II partisan ‘is a normal and cool thing’. [14] Zelensky’s balanced approach to questions of history and identity was on full display when he celebrated Victory Day by sharing a photo of himself with two UPA and Red Army veterans, locked in a symbolic handshake. [15] Similarly, Zelensky, who has declined to unambiguously align himself with the Kiev Patriarchate’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church as Poroshenko did after its establishment last December, recently met with the heads of Ukraine’s rival Orthodox churches and arranged for Ukraine’s religious leaders to send a joint ‘message of peace’ to the residents of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. [16, 17]

Indeed, Zelensky and his advisers have signalled that some of the most divisive cultural issues pressed by Poroshenko and his allies should be put to the side in favour of more pressing – and tangible – problems like corruption. [18] That could mute at least some of the internal differences on which Moscow has capitalised in its efforts to discredit Kiev. Zelensky has also proposed targeting the hearts and minds of those living under separatist rule and ensuring that they ‘understan[d] that they are Ukrainians’ through ‘an information war’ involving the creation of an internationally broadcast Russian-language television channel. [19] That would constitute a marked departure from the Poroshenko administration’s failure to undertake ‘a serious outreach effort to those caught behind LNR and DNR lines, to make them feel that they would be fully welcomed back as citizens of Ukraine once Ukrainian sovereignty was restored’, as former US ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer described it in 2017. [20]

It is possible that internal and external pressures will cause Zelensky to change course on Russia upon entering office. Zelensky must capture the Rada in upcoming parliamentary elections while dealing with the continuing challenge from Poroshenko, who has said he will run in Ukraine’s 2024 presidential election; meanwhile, the actions of Russia and Ukraine’s Western partners will shape how he navigates Kiev’s confrontation with Moscow. In any case, Zelensky is unlikely to take a sharp turn for the dovish, with his hawkish turn since the March 31st vote a far cry from the nightmare scenario that Zelensky sceptics painted on the campaign trail and reason enough to rethink Zelensky and his emerging Russia policy.

Photo by The Presidential Administration of Ukraine, published under Creative Commons with no changes made.

[1] Obozrevatel, ‘In Kiev, the police detained a guy for leaflets against Zelensky: the net is seething’, April 2019

[2] Christopher Miller, ‘Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s new campaign posters for the second-round runoff election suggest it’s a choice between the incumbent and … Putin. “April 21 – a decisive choice”’, Twitter, April 2019,

[3] Simon Ostrovsky, ‘Poroshenko speaking on Maidan, at perhaps his last rally there as president, warns supporters that a Zelensky presidency would mean Ukraine being a colony of Russia’, Twitter, April 2019,

[4] Michael Colborne, ‘OK. In an interview, Poroshenko says that his defeat in the elections April 21 would carry “extreme risks” and would be “a threat to the existence of the state.”’, Twitter, April 2019,

[5] Jack Laurenson, ‘Deputy prime minister: Cabinet moving to safeguard NATO and Euro-Atlantic integration’, Kyiv Post, April 2019,

[6] Bermet Talant, ‘Zelenskiy reveals plans to end war with Russia, fight corruption’, Kyiv Post, April 2019,

[7] Sociological Group ‘Rating’, ‘Ukraine today: challenges and prospects’, May 2019,

[8] Svetlana Bocharova, Elena Mukhametshina, and Varvara Podrugina, ‘Whose victory in Ukraine’s presidential election would Russia benefit from? The opinions of political scientists’, Vedomosti, March 2019,

[9] General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces‏, ‘«We do not have «rebels». We have Russian aggression» – reminder of the President of Ukraine – Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The Armed Forces of Ukraine will not forget and will not forgive about that. Never!!!’, Twitter, April 2019,

[10] Andrew Roth, ‘Russia tests Ukraine’s new president with passports for breakaway regions’, The Guardian, April 2019,

[11] The Moscow Times, ‘Putin says Russians and Ukrainians would benefit from shared citizenship’, April 2019,

[12] Volodymyr Zelensky, Facebook post, April 2019,

[13] Ilya Ponomarev, ‘Нарешті, це трапилось! Сьогодні, чинний президент України – Петро Порошенко, в останній робочий день своєї каденції, підписав указ про надання мені українського громадянства, згідно державного інтересу. Я сказав… …’, Twitter, May 2019,

[14] Sam Sokol, ‘With two Jews in the country’s top jobs, what is next for Ukraine?’, The Jewish Chronicle, April 2019,

[15] Yaroslav Trofimov, ‘Ukrainian President-elect Zelensky uses quite an image for his Victory Day message: a Soviet WWII veteran whose only grandson was killed by the Russians in Donbas and a former clandestine member of the Ukrainian Insurgent Armey that was targeting Soviet troops in the 1940s.’, Twitter, May 2019,

[16] Fabrice Deprez, ‘President-elect Zelensky met with the head of the former Kyiv Patriarchate, the leader of the newly founded Ukrainian orthodox Church but also with the head of the Moscow Patriarchate. Another indication Zelensky is looking to distance himself from Poroshenko’s governing style’, Twitter, May 2019,

[17] Volodymyr Zelensky, Facebook post, May 2019,

[18] Unian, ‘Advisor to Zelensky names president-elect’s priorities for first 100 days in office’, May 2019,

[19] Interfax Ukraine, ‘Zelensky suggests waging information “war” for Donbas, launching special intl Russian-language channel’, March 2019,

[20] Steven Pifer, ‘Deepening division in Donbas’, Brookings Institution, May 2017,

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