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By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University
Last Sunday, a 40-year-old television comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected President of Ukraine by defeating incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in a landslide.
In an unofficial vote count, Zelensky won nearly 75 percent of the votes. While the official results may not be ready until April 30, the victory gives Ukraine a president with no political, parliamentary or military experience. He received a law degree from the Krivoy Rog College of Economics and Management of Kiev National Economic University.
However, most recently he starred in the hit Ukrainian television series, “Servant of the People,” as a teacher who becomes president. There is no word yet on what will become of the series now that the actor has actually become president.
As president, Zelensky also becomes commander in chief of the nation’s military — over 200,000 soldiers, sailors, air force personnel, and special operation forces; over 50,000 paramilitary forces, and the newly formed national guard of approximately 60,000 members.
Ukraine also has more than 800 tanks, approximately 2,000 armored vehicles, nearly 2,000 artillery and air defense weapons; a limited number of attack helicopters, around 125 combat capable aircraft, and a small naval force.
A NATO Supporter, Zelensky Campaigned for Moderation in Dealings with Russia
While Zelensky is a firm supporter of Ukraine joining NATO, he also campaigned for a more moderate stance in dealing with Russia. This puts him in a delicate situation because Ukraine has been in the middle of a rift between Russia and the West for several years now. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted that “NATO will continue to provide strong political and practical support to Ukraine.” Therefore, it seems clear that Ukraine, which applied to join the NATO Membership Action Plan in 2008, can expect to remain between the West and Russia.
One of Zelensky’s first tests may be his relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who declined to congratulate him on his election victory. Moreover, Ukrainian military officials say Putin is already stockpiling troops along the contested border with Crimea, which Russia annexed in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.
While Zelensky campaigned against Ukraine’s rampart corruption, as an actor he worked at the television stationed owned by Igor Kolomoysky, who is known for violent corporate raiding. Reports indicate that the two men are close. Some believe Zelensky might be a puppet for Kolomoysky or could become one. That is worrisome because it could lead to Zelensky being manipulated by corrupt business interests. Others claim that his relationship with Kolomoysky was an invention of Kremlin propaganda.
Zelensky was born into a Russian-Ukrainian-Jewish family in the Dnipropetrovsky Oblast in the Russia-leaning industrial heartland of southeastern Ukraine, not far from the rebel-held area of Donetsk. He becomes the first Jewish head of state in Europe since France’s eight-month presidency of communist-backed Pierre France in 1955.
Zelensky Faces a Hostile Parliament led by the Head of the Second-Largest Opposition Party
The president-elect already faces a hostile parliament, known as the Rada. Andriy Sadovyi, head of the Samopomich party, the second largest opposition group in the Rada, announced days before the vote that he was working to gain support for a bill that would weaken the presidency.
Throughout the election campaign, both Zelensky and Poroshenko resorted to vicious, dishonest and deceptive political advertising. At times the campaign seemed like a circus with both men attempting to appeal to the voters’ basest instincts rather than focusing on real issues facing the nation.
Zelensky conducted his campaign more along the lines of a reality TV show. After the election and Poroshenko’s concession, Zelensky said, “Look at Ukraine, where everything is possible.” It was a slight, but clear jab at other former Soviet satellite nations whose elections are often mere facades.
Ukraine’s Future under Zelensky
While it is easy to state that Zelensky’s election is a victory for Ukrainian democracy, the future of the nation is far from certain. Zelensky has already met with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. In addition, Stoltenberg has invited Zelensky to visit NATO headquarters in the near future.
During his televised debates with Poroshenko, Zelensky proved to be an excellent debater. He seems to be a “normal person” who rejects the power of the oligarchs and desires a normal, peaceful life for the Ukrainian population. Zelensky used his lack of experience and being a political outsider to his advantage during the campaign and many of his opponents believe that this lack of experience will make him susceptible to the Kremlin’s manipulations as well as to that of Ukraine’s own oligarchs.
However, it is exactly this “normality” that made him so popular and allowed him to win all of Ukraine’s regions except Lvov. He also was able to overcome the political divisions between east and west Ukraine. If he is able to maintain his popularity, he may be in a position to unify the nation for the first time in years.
About the Author
Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master’s of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He served nearly six years with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master’s of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.
Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.