Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 5, May 2019
By Robert T. Person, United States Military Academy
Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, left, speaks as Volodymyr Zelenskiy, comic and presidential candidate, listens during a debate at the Kiev Stadium in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 19, 2019. The two candidates for Ukraine’s presidency squared off in a long-awaited and often bad-tempered debate, their last chance to sway opinion before the April 21 runoff, which Zelenskiy won. Vincent Mundy/Bloomberg via Getty Images
With Ukraine’s 2019 presidential campaign now complete, the country finds itself – as it has on numerous occasions in the last 15 years – at a historic crossroads. Actor-comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s stunning landslide victory over incumbent president Petro Poroshenko by a margin of 73.2 percent to 24.4 percent presents challenges and opportunities with far-reaching implications for Ukraine, Russia, the European Union, and the United States. On the domestic front, another peaceful transition of power through democratic elections indicates that Ukrainian democracy – though far from perfect – is alive and gaining strength. In public comments Zelenskiy has reaffirmed Ukraine’s commitment to democratic rule, drawing a sharp contrast with Russia’s authoritarian politics. On the foreign policy front, he has pledged to stand up to Russia and continue Ukraine’s path to NATO membership, even while expressing a willingness to “negotiate with the devil” to bring the war in Eastern Ukraine to an end. This is something the prior president, Petro Poroshenko, refused to do, though Zelenskiy’s chances of breaking the stalemate in the Donbas remain slim. Though it is too early to tell what the future holds for the new Ukrainian president and the country he leads, there can be little doubt that Ukraine will continue to be a key zone of strategic competition – and likely conflict – in Eastern Europe, much as it has been for the last five years.