Ukraine after the escalation. How Donbas aggravation changed Zelensky’s position

Konstantin Skorkin

The aggravation in Donbass in the spring of 2021 helped Volodymyr Zelenskyy get out of a difficult political crisis. The year began for him with a catastrophic drop in his rating, confusion in the ruling party and growing pressure from the opposition – many have already begun to write off the Ukrainian president. However, Zelenskiy’s course of fighting “enemies of the state” with the help of sanctions has proven its political effectiveness.

The decisions, which at first looked like a bizarre adventure, acquired an internal political meaning under the conditions of military alarm and earned the trust of a noticeable part of Ukrainian society. The president’s position was also strengthened by massive support from Western leaders. Nevertheless, Zelenskiy’s fascination with emergency measures solves some problems, but creates others. His team still cannot offer any long-term strategy, does not strengthen institutions, but is looking for miraculous improvisations that can restore popularity to the president and again captivate bored voters.

Exacerbation rating

In December 2018, the Kremlin did not react to the belligerent maneuvers of Petro Poroshenko, who declared martial law in part of the country. This noticeably undermined the position of the then Ukrainian president: without a threatening response from Russia, it became obvious that Poroshenko was simply preparing for the presidential elections scheduled for spring.

In 2021, pulling up troops to the borders of Ukraine, Moscow was guided by its own geopolitical considerations, signaling the new administration in Washington. But involuntarily, she played along with Zelensky. The level of military anxiety has increased in Ukrainian society: if compared with December 2018, the share of those Ukrainians who are afraid of a resumption of hostilities increased from 21% to 36% (such sentiments are especially strong in the west and center of the country).

Against this background, Zelensky’s rating, which collapsed at the beginning of the year, began to grow. Contrary to the predictions of skeptics who expected the patriotic turn to fail, Ukrainian society rallied around the president. Leading sociological agencies are giving Zelenskiy from 28% to 31% support by the beginning of May – a noticeable increase compared to February, when it fell below 20%.

The balance of trust / distrust in the president has also improved: from –39% in February to –26% in April. Despite the negative values, this is the best result among Ukrainian politicians of the first echelon. The presidential rating also extended his party: “Servant of the People”, which slipped to second or third place in January-February, returned to first with a rating of more than 20%.

At the same time, sociologists from the Ukrainian Institute for the Future note a decrease in confidence in the president in the part of Donbass controlled by Kiev, which is finally turning into an enclave of pro-Russian sympathies. Another alarming call – 6% of Ukrainians consider it acceptable for themselves to participate in armed uprisings against the authorities.

Zelenskiy’s rise in popularity has affected the ratings of the opposition. The KIIS research shows the decline in the popularity of the Opposition platform – a direct consequence of the information campaign against its leader Medvedchuk, sanctions and the ban on his TV channels.

This, however, does not mean that Medvedchuk’s voters are leaving for Zelenskiy – especially given his national-patriotic turn. Rather, they are disappointed in their representatives. Against this background, there are persistent rumors that a new project sponsored by the oligarchs Akhmetov and Novinsky will occupy the emptying niche of the party for the southeast.

And the ranks of Zelensky’s supporters are replenishing at the expense of those who previously voted for moderate national democrats: Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna and the Golos party. They are just impressed by the new image of Zelensky – a pro-Western statesman and an enemy of the oligarchs.

The rating of “European Solidarity” Poroshenko remains stable, but in general, the prospects for the former president are not very bright. The KIIS study notes the growing popularity of right-wing politicians alternative to Poroshenko – the radical “National Corps” and, it seemed, half-forgotten Anatoly Gritsenko.

Zelenskiy’s growing popularity convinces him of the correct course. The president is unlikely to refuse new sanctions against internal enemies and offensive rhetoric against Russia (although the demonstration of the RF Armed Forces near the borders of Ukraine serves as its natural limiter). Zelenskiy gave up hopes of being president for all and gave up trying to simultaneously please the disparate groups that voted for him in 2019. Now he is building a new image of a statesman president, resigning himself to the fact that enclaves will remain in the country where his policies will be completely rejected, as, for example, in the Donbass.

Security officials and NATO members

In addition to the growth of presidential popularity, the Donbas aggravation has increased the importance of law enforcement agencies within the Ukrainian government. In addition to the presidential office, where the main center of decision-making is concentrated, another seat of power has emerged – the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC), which is responsible for adopting sanctions. Oleksiy Danilov, the former mayor of Luhansk and governor of the Luhansk region, who is in charge of the NSDC, has become the face of the new course.

The position of the permanent head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov also strengthened – especially against the backdrop of internal unrest and protests. Rumors continue that he may be nominated for the premiere.

The Servant of the People party, in which everyone expected a split and disintegration at the turn of 2020-2021, supported the president against the backdrop of a sanctions epic and a military threat. The punishment of the factional leader Alexander Dubinsky, expelled from the party for participating in compromising intrigues around the presidential elections in the United States, also played a role.

Of course, there are still enough scandals with the participation of party representatives (take, for example, the unauthorized visit of deputy Yevgeny Shevchenko to Minsk to Lukashenko), and the president still finds it difficult to pass his decisions through the Rada, despite the formal majority. However, the mere fact that such a loose and large-scale party continues to exist and does not fall apart can already be attributed to Zelensky’s successes.

During the exacerbation, Zelensky himself willingly traveled to the front line, including in the company of European politicians. So he got used to the new role of the organizer of defense, which was supposed to cover his past unsuccessful trips to the troops as a “chief persuader” when he entered into skirmishes with fighters who did not want to leave positions during the withdrawal of troops.

The President intensified contacts with NATO, signed a decree on the national program of cooperation with the alliance for 2021. Zelenskiy said he expects a “powerful signal” from NATO in the summer, which will confirm the alliance’s intention to accept Ukraine into its ranks. The chances of real joining NATO remain more than elusive, but public activity in this area will clearly increase. And as a significant progress in this direction, it will be possible to submit, for example, support for accession from the states of the “Bucharest Nine”, representing the East Black Sea flank of NATO.

The visit of representatives of the new US administration – Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his deputy Victoria Nuland also went well for Zelensky. They criticized Kiev for its slowness in carrying out reforms and personnel policy, but in general they guaranteed Ukraine, led by Zelensky, support in its confrontation with Russia.

The leader of the Opposition Platform – For Life, Medvedchuk, was charged with treason for participating in the development of gas fields in Crimea. The rate, apparently, was that it would be possible to squeeze him out of the country. But the calculation did not work: Moscow, through the mouth of Dmitry Peskov, hinted to Medvedchuk that he is more needed in Kiev, and the case has every chance of falling apart in court. The Pechersk court has already sent Medvedchuk under house arrest instead of a pre-trial detention center.

True, this development of events only once again convinces Zelensky that he is right when he uses emergency measures. The sanctions proved to be effective, depriving Medvedchuk of access to assets and a television mouthpiece, but the president cannot rely on the Ukrainian courts.

The renewed confrontation between the office of the president and the mayor of Kiev Vitali Klitschko became even more revealing. The latter is one of the most promising potential competitors of Zelensky in future elections. If the fight against Medvedchuk can still be presented as part of extraordinary measures associated with a military exacerbation, then in the case of Klitschko, we are talking about purely political competition.

Zelensky already clashed with Klitschko in 2019, at the beginning of his presidency, but for a while concluded a truce – the mayor of Kiev was able to be re-elected for a new term without much resistance from the Servant of the People. Now the enmity has resumed with renewed vigor – the reason was the conflict over the introduction of a nationwide lockdown. Klitschko was in favor, the Cabinet was against.

Now the office of the president has returned to the idea of ​​separating the posts of mayor and head of the city administration, in order to leave Klitschko only the first of them, depriving a significant part of his powers. The confrontation turned into a forceful plane: the prosecutor’s office and fiscal departments carried out a series of searches in Kiev utilities, they even tried to search the apartment of the mayor himself. Arthur Palatny, a confidant and wallet of Klitschko’s party, came under attack – he is accused of protecting illegal trade in the capital.

Officials from the mayor’s office say that there has not been such pressure on the Kiev authorities since the time of Yanukovych, who actually removed the mayor of Chernovetsky from his duties and led Kiev through his head of administration. Yanukovych justified this by fighting corruption, which really had a monstrous scale under Chernovetsk. Zelenskiy uses similar explanations.

It seems that Zelensky got a taste, and the situation of military aggravation gave his actions legitimacy in the eyes of a significant part of Ukrainian society. The confrontation with Putin’s Russia paradoxically makes similar authoritarian methods in demand. Foreign funding is sought from the media, and opponents are dealt with with the help of security officials. The West, alarmed by Russian military activity, is still ready to turn a blind eye to this, provided Kiev is loyal. In Ukrainian society itself, the demand for a “strong hand” is stronger than for reforms. Zelenskiy has to find a balance between how to maintain his power and not replenish the club of post-Soviet autocracies, from which Ukraine has struggled to get out in recent years.

Zelensky’s enthusiasm for emergency measures helps to solve some tactical problems, but in the long term it does not bode well. The presidential team is still not engaged in the development of state institutions – for example, with a functioning judicial system, there would be no need to impose sanctions against the leaders of smugglers or several hundred thieves in law, as was the case at one of the last meetings of the NSDC. Both Western allies and civil society inside the country insist on judicial reform, but it is unlikely to have an immediate PR effect and therefore is not of interest to the presidential administration. And Zelensky himself, for the sake of saving the rating, is in constant search of miraculous improvisations, with the help of which he is going to reconcile different parts of the country with each other, then to mobilize it to repel the enemy.

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