The upcoming Ukrainian elections are of crucial significance due to their ability to influence the complex structures of regional security and stability. The election results will indeed impact (although to what extent, remains to be seen) the Russia-Ukraine and the wider Russian-EU relations. Given their geopolitical importance, they will surely draw attention from all the significant international actors involved.
The Russian population is keenly following the Ukrainian elections, given the close economic and other personal ties (likelihood of having family between the two countries). Studies conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center investigated popular opinions within Russia regarding the Ukrainian elections, and the results were quite interesting. "The Russian populations' awareness of the upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections is rather high: 79% of Russians have heard of the election campaign including 18% who are following the campaign closely". At the same time, fears of possible manipulations are widespread among Russians, with 68% of those polled believing that the election results will be falsified by the Ukrainian authorities and thus won't be representative of the will of the people. More than one and every ten respondents (12%) believes that while there might be certain violations, but they will not influence the overall results. On the whole, the elections do not look very legitimate in the eyes of many Russians.
The attitude of the Russian political elite toward the election campaign in Ukraine also varies from neutral to a sceptical one, as I will further illustrate in this article.
What does Moscow want?
The overall expectation is that Russia is going to intervene in Ukrainian elections and push for a more pro-Russian candidate. This strategy was used for the first time in 2004 during the “Orange Revolution” and proved its ineffectiveness. Nevertheless, the current situation in Ukraine and the international context forces Russia to adopt more creative foreign policy measures towards its neighbouring countries.
Russia's expectation from the upcoming elections is the appointment of a president that will shift the policy from one of radicalisation and confrontation towards opening a more constructive dialogue. Each of the candidates is able to do it. Yulia Timoshenko and Vladimir Zelensky promise to negotiate with Vladimir Putin. Tymoshenko proposed to cooperate in a "completely different negotiation format" involving all the Budapest Memorandum signatories. Zelensky from his side said: “We will not be able to avoid negotiations between Russia and Ukraine”. President Petro Poroshenko is less likely to do it, as he relies on the narrative of Russia as an external threat: “There are two enemies of Ukraine now: the Russian Federation... and the second enemy is poverty”.
Yet Ukraine’s attitude towards Russia significantly depends on the relationship between Russia and the West; hence, presumably, the personality of the future Ukrainian president will not influence the Russian-Ukrainian relationship dramatically. Andrey Kortunov proposes four scenarios for the future of Russia, and points out that “the Ukrainian problem itself cannot be completely resolved without restoring European unity”. The Russia–Ukraine relationship is indeed embedded in a wider regional and international context.
On Russia’s side, Crimea is not an issue for discussion anymore, after Russia feels it has settled questions concerning security in the Black Sea and, more broadly, security for the Russian speaking community. That is why now Russia’s main goal is to move towards a peaceful resolution of the current conflict with Ukraine, which excludes the Crimea issue from the future negotiation process. Based on my research and observations, I believe Russian interests in Ukraine can be summarised in three key points:
First, Russia is interested in the implementation of the Minsk agreements and reintegration of Donbass in Ukraine. In this case, Russia is concerned about the rights of the Russian-speaking population and their safety, and this issue will rank high on Russia’s agenda.
Second, Russia aims at rebuilding its economic ties with Ukraine, since Moscow is still Kiev’s largest trade partner: according to World Bank data, in 2017 Ukrainian export to Russia was 3,943,217.84 $ (9.08%), for comparison – Poland is the second (6.28%) and import – 7,196,562.10 (14.56%), China is the third (11.41%).
Third, despite the conflict, labour migration from Ukraine to Russia still exists. Russia is interested in qualified workers and students coming to study. Ukraine remains the main country of origin of migrants to Russia, even if the number has decreased (137,700 in 2018 as opposed to 150,100 in 2017) and there is a trend of more Ukrainian citizens leaving Russia.
Against this background, three possible scenarios for Russian policy regarding the Ukrainian elections may happen:
Russia might support a pro-Russian candidate if he or she is elected. The Ukrainian and Western politicians and media mostly expect Russia to implement this policy. However, this scenario is not likely. First, the most pro-Russian candidate – that is, Yuriy Boyko from “Opposition Bloc” – enjoys very little support among the population, with only 6.9%. Second, the Ukrainian people are very averse to any pro-Russian ideas or rhetoric – even if Boyko is very moderate when talking about Russia as a potential partner. Third, Russia has little resources to influence the electoral process in Ukraine now. Even though there are already some fears of cyber-attacks and meddling in the elections – these fears may be exaggerated in the context of Poroshenko’s pre-election media strategy.
A second scenario would be that Russia does not recognise election results since, in Moscow’s eyes, they lack legitimacy. In February, the Ukrainian Parliament approved a law banning Russian citizens from monitoring the presidential, parliamentary and local elections in the country. The ruling prompted most of the Russian establishment, especially Members of Russia Parliament, to label the election process as non-legitimate. For example, Alexey Pushkov pointed out that Russia has all the reasons not to recognise the results of upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine: “Adopting the law forbidding the Russian citizens to observe the Ukrainian elections, Ukraine has broken up its international obligations, counting on the West that will forgive everything one more time." The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has also criticised the ban, and on 15 March added 24 Russians to the short-term observers' list at the Ukrainian presidential election. However, this fact probably is unlikely to change the call of the Russian political establishment’s radical wing not to recognise the election results.
This strategy may give Russia some time to consolidate its policy and resources and attempt to become a more influential power in eastern Ukraine during the upcoming parliamentary elections (October 2019). This scenario would, however, freeze the current situation or even make it worse, with more frictions and potential new sanctions from the West.
The most likely scenario is that Russia recognises the electoral results. President Putin has said of the current situation, that the Ukrainian “political elites are exploiting Russia-phobic sentiments and as such, it is necessary to wait for the end of the electoral campaign to work towards the conflict resolution." At the same time, he expressed his willingness/availability in holding possible dialogue with Petro Poroshenko.
The extent to which the dialogue with the newly elected candidate will be successful depends on a set of conditions. Poroshenko’s position is very influenced by that of the EU and the USA; therefore, dialogue with Russia will be possible only if it will be supported by Western political will. If another candidate wins the elections, Russia will have more options at its disposal. These options will become more evident during the first few months after the inauguration of the new President.
In conclusion, Russia's position in the upcoming Ukrainian elections is a wait and see approach. For now, Russia has neither the resources nor the political will to influence the results dramatically. Most likely, Moscow's strategy will be to accept and work with the results, while trying to uphold its position in future negotiations with the Ukrainian elite and the EU.
The author thanks Olga Pylova, RIAC editor, for her assistance in this research.