Ukraine Selects a Uniquely (Un)qualified President, Adding to Its Challenges

May 8, 2019 Updated: May 8, 2019

Ukraine was on the verge of slipping into the “too hard” box for foreign observers and crisis managers. It was among the “crisis of the month,” Playboy centerfold equivalents for international viewers-with-alarm whose attention spans are only slightly longer than mayflies.

So, Russia’s seizure of Crimea in March 2014 was and continues to be condemned by the (ho hum) United Nations combined with economic sanctions that have no practical effect other than irritating some high-ranking Russian bureaucrat-politicians. Moscow’s continued support for its deniable “little green men” grinding away at Ukraine’s eastern frontier has prompted desultory U.S./NATO deliveries of military equipment. The Kremlin simply denies complicity in the shootdown of Malaysia flight MH-17 in July 2014, despite conclusion by an international Joint Investigation Team the shooters employed Russian antiaircraft missiles and returned the launcher/equipment to Russia.

And whatever happened to the fit of fury (now not even a hissy fit) when Russians seized three Ukrainian naval vessels in November 2018 and incarcerated 24 sailors, whom it continues to hold without charges? Navigation in the Kerch Strait is supposed to fall under “Freedom of the Seas” rights of innocent passage, but Moscow is imposing rules that indicate any passage not approved by them is “guilty.” And whatever happened to the proposed U.S./NATO naval deployments to the Azor Sea as a countervailing presence?

The Unlikely President 

But in one of the mind-bending outcomes in modern Western-style elections, on April 24, Ukraine elected Volodymyr Zelensky, with 73 percent of a two-man second-round vote over the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko.

And Who Is Volodymyr Zelensky?

For the record, Zelensky is a comedian whose role as a schoolteacher who becomes president (“Servant of the People”) is an ongoing satire on Ukraine’s most popular television channel. Zelensky dominates it with variety shows and comedy talent as well as his TV series.

The campaign he ran was as unique as his personal persona. It has been described as virtually virtual, since Zelensky made no public speeches, held no rallies, gave no press conferences, did not travel the country pressing flesh with citizens, and evaded debates until the very end of the campaign. Instead, he heavily engaged on YouTube and Instagram; appeared on TV programs and participated in a single, last minute debate.

He has no formal team of advisers and has contented himself with railing against corruption and promising the get the economy moving again. As a consequence, observers know almost nothing about his views on the full range of domestic issues. He has amorphous attitudes on foreign policy, e.g., denouncing Russia as “an aggressor state, which is waging war against Ukraine.” But, concurrently, he has said that he is open to dialogue with Moscow. Although Putin ignored comment on Zelensky immediately after the election when other states and organizations were issuing congratulations, he has subsequently said officially that he is willing to improve relations with Kiev.

One can easily imagine the irritation felt by the establishment “wise heads” being frozen out/ignored while Zelensky surrounded himself with colleagues from show business partners, members of his comedy troupe, and what is described as a “handful of lawyers linked to his main backer, Ukrainian oligarch, Ihor Kolomoyskly.” The latter is more than somewhat troubling as Kolomoyskly is accused by the government of defrauding the country’s banking system of $5.6 billion. Is Zelensky little more tha Kolomoyskly’s creature providing him with implicit assurances that the charges against him will be dropped?

The forgoing prompted one of those experts left out in the cold, that Zelensky is “probably the least prepared individual to head a democracy in world history.”

But Zelensky is essentially a vehicle for Ukrainians “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” infuriated over massive corruption (reportedly 30 percent of defense procurement budgets are lost to corruption), economic stick-in-the-mud performance, and inability to counter Russian military shin-kicks and implicit contempt.

Challenges and Responses

Zelensky is essentially a tabula rasa and the West must act urgently to write its story on him. While insisting that he act vigorously against corruption, the U.S./NATO/West must not stint in providing strong economic support (wean Kiev from Russian energy) and more lethal weaponry to facilitate pushback of Russian-sponsored separatists;

He must develop a domestic base as currently he cannot muster a parliamentary majority. Although there are legislative elections in October, Ukraine epitomizes domestic infighting, assuring nothing important gets accomplished.

Big challenges, but Ukraine should not be put back in the “too hard” box.

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.