On the 21st April 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian and complete political outsider, was swept to power in the Ukrainian Presidential elections. He comfortably beat his incumbent rival Petro Poroshenko by gaining 73% of the vote. Around the world, this election marked the beginning of a crackdown on widespread corruption and signalled a glimmer of hope for war-torn Ukraine. However, it now seems like the light is going out. President Zelensky is under pressure from America, from Russia and from powerful interests within his own country, making his position more precarious than ever.
On one side of the world, a NATO ally continues to cause problems for Ukraine. That is to say, the USA is alleged to have pressured Zelensky into opening an investigation into Trump’s Presidential rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter by withholding $400 million in military aid. Not only does this seriously hinder Ukraine’s fight against Russian-backed separatists in the East of the country, but it also suggests that America sees Ukraine as nothing more than a toy. Evidence of the latter was provided by US Diplomat David Holmes in a belatedly released testimony. More specifically, he stated that US Ambassador Gordon Sondland had claimed to President Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass” and would do anything he asked. Whether he said this to stroke Trump’s ego or not is irrelevant. Ukraine appears to have been abandoned by one of its most crucial allies, putting it and the position of Volodymyr Zelensky in considerable jeopardy.
Russia has not gone away either. Its powerful Black Sea Fleet continues to menace Crimea and it seems almost beyond doubt that its military is backing separatists in Eastern provinces like Donetsk. They will be delighted to hear that the USA is not supporting Ukraine and will undoubtedly take advantage of it. Whether this is through stepping up its military presence in the area or through more subtle measures like interfering in the next elections remains to be seen. The Russian Bear is prowling on the borders of Ukraine. If its allies desert it like the USA is doing, it will pounce, looking for an easy meal. Vladimir Putin has made it very clear just how easy a meal Ukraine would be for Russia. When the Ukrainian civil war was at the centre of Western media attention back in 2016, he announced that “I could take Kiev in two weeks if I wanted to”. Such a claim is highly believable, and it shows that Zelensky is at the mercy of two masters: Trump and Putin.
As if all this were not bad enough, Zelensky has had to deal with turbulence from within his own government right at a time when the coronavirus is menacing the world. Not only is he on his third Prime Minister in seven months, he also sacked his entire cabinet just three weeks ago because of what he called their “poor performance” and because they had appointed foreigners to the boards of state companies in line with IMF recommendations. The fact that he has done this suggests that there are powerful vested interests in Ukraine who are not very keen to have their positions taken away from them. Consequently, they have put pressure on Zelensky to get rid of the people who want to take away their power. The oligarchy of the Poroshenko years has not been stamped out. On the contrary, it continues to wield considerable influence over the Ukrainian government. This means that Zelensky faces a huge amount of both domestic and international pressure. There appears to be one hope left for Zelensky and this hope lies with the Ukrainian people. Their desire to avoid the re-instalment of a Russian puppet president may be the one thing that stands in the way of Zelensky’s downfall.
Overall, it appears as though Zelensky’s position is hanging by a thread. His government is in turmoil right in the middle of a global crisis and America appears to have abandoned it as Russia looms large. Despite this, Zelensky may yet be able to hold on to his position if the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian legislature and the wider international community continue to support him. For the sake of Ukrainian democracy, this support must hold firm.
Image - Flickr.