Guide to the Ukrainian Election by Foreign Policy

With Russia occupying about 7 percent of the country and corruption still endemic, Westerners continue to think of Ukraine as a basket case, writes the journalist Paul Hockenos. But it isn’t.“Ukraine isn’t a failing state or a hopeless Potemkin democracy—it’s a country, though war-torn, firmly on the path of making good on the 2014 Maidan Revolution and, under reasonable conditions, succeeding as a European country in good standing.”

Much of the credit, argues Alexander J. Motyl, should go to Poroshenko. Ongoing problems with corruption aside, the Poroshenko administration, Motyl notes, “has built an army and fought the Russians and their proxies to a standstill in the eastern Donbass. It has reformed the police and streamlined the secret police. . . It has devoted millions of dollars to fixing Ukraine’s dilapidated infrastructure and ensuring the country’s energy independence.”

The problem, according to Motyl, is that Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution set the public’s hopes too high.

Michael Colborne notes, Poroshenko has started to amp up his nationalist rhetoric. Unfortunately for Poroshenko, Colborne concludes, such rhetoric will do “little to address the dissatisfaction felt by many Ukrainian voters.”

Will Zelensky be more palatable? In some ways, yes. As a television star and comedian, Zelensky has some built-in advantages, explains Tej Parikh. Such figures “tend to reject the values and authority of the existing power establishment”—a plus when the public is fed up with the existing order. “And at a time when global, economic, and technological change is driving upheaval and uncertainty, it’s understandable that voters would especially lean toward basic feel-good leadership.”

That trend worries Motyl. On the campaign trail, Zelensky has put forward few policy proposals. Instead, he has let his television character, of the hit TV series Servant of the People, do the talking for him. And the values the show espouses are curiously pro-Russian: In the series, there is no Russia or Russian President Vladimir Putin. “In its alternate universe, Crimea and Donbass are not occupied. There is no war. There are no deaths. There is no mention of Russian attempts to quash Ukrainian independence since 1991.” These omissions, Motyl warns, suggest “either that Zelensky, who serves as the show’s executive producer, has no idea how to deal with a very real existential threat to Ukraine or, far worse, that he doesn’t believe that there is one.”

By seizing Crimea and Donbass, Chris Miller, points out, “Russia chopped off the two regions with the least developed sense of Ukrainian identity.”

Moscow still has designs on the Ukrainian election, however. Russian disinformation campaigns to paint the vote as chaotic and rigged, the journalist Justin Lynch notes.

According to Daniel Twining, “The integrity of the Ukrainian state itself is at stake—strong democracy will ultimately serve as the best guarantor of the country’s sovereignty and stability.” Indeed, “[i]f democracy succeeds in Ukraine, the Ukrainian people will have shown the world that it can succeed anywhere—even in Putin’s own backyard.”