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War and Peace in Ukraine’s Presidential Race

Mykhailo Minakov
Ukraine – NATO Commission chaired by Petro Poroshenko. Source: The Presidential Administration of Ukraine


As the day to elect Ukraine’s next president draws near, the candidates’ campaigns have become more aggressive and their positions more intransigent. The three leading candidates have entered the campaign phase in which, in addition to their official platforms, nonpolitical tools are being wielded to gain an edge on the competition. For example, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose office was allegedly wired by Ukraine’s Security Service (SSU), has announced that the authorities are preparing criminal charges against him for a car accident in 2002. Yulia Tymoshenko has accused the incumbent’s team of “systemic bribery all over Ukraine" directed toward "distributing money to people" in exchange for votes. The SSU, for its part, has accused Tymoshenko of organizing an “electoral pyramid” to buy votes in the amount of nearly U.S. $82 million. However, all these disturbing events still afford Ukrainians, as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s Mission to Ukraine put it, the “general environment… [to] allow [the] holding of democratic elections.”

All elections produce heated accusations and denunciations, so brilliantly ridiculed by Mark Twain over a century ago. In today’s Ukraine, however, there is an obvious and distressing lack of sensible debate on the key challenges facing a nation at war.

In fact, the issue of war and peace is the most prominent challenge, overshadowing all others. According to a recent poll, 67 percent of Ukrainians feel that what Ukraine needs the most is peace; this figure swelled from 62 percent in just six months. How do the Ukrainian presidential candidates address the military conflict with Russia and Russia-backed separatists? What are their proposed solutions?

The platforms of the three leading candidates offer some clues.

Currently in the lead (with the support of 24.7 percent of likely voters), Volodymyr Zelenskiy is openly in support of a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Russia and the reintegration of the non-controlled lands in the Donbas. In his official platform, Zelenskiy outlines four steps to returning Ukraine to the path of peaceful development. First, he suggests organizing a conference with the participation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum signatories (Russia, the UK, and the United States, with the addition of France and China) and the EU that would mediate an end to the war, the return of occupied lands, and Russia’s reparation payments. (The original signers committed to never using weapons against each other.) Second, Zelenskiy proposes furthering reform of the defense sector with the creation of an efficient army staffed by professional soldiers and untainted by corruption. Third, he supports “movement toward NATO”; however, he feels membership should be decided on the basis of a national referendum. Finally, he promises to reform the SSU, which should cease being used to apply pressure on businesses and return to its nominal task of providing security for citizens.

Basically, Volodymyr Zelenskiy is ready to talk “even with the devil” if that will deliver peace to Ukraine.

Yulia Tymoshenko (supported by 18.3 percent of likely voters) identifies achieving peace and security as the first task in her “New Course for Ukraine” program. She has proposed diplomacy in the Budapest Memorandum format as a tool to make Russia return the Donbas and Crimea to Ukraine. To support diplomatic steps, Tymoshenko promises to develop the Ukrainian army in accordance with NATO standards to “guarantee security to the country and to each family.” She also promises to increase the current financial and material “motivational package” offered to Ukrainian soldiers and to beef up social security benefits for veterans.

Tymoshenko aims at reintegrating the Donbas and Crimea by destroying “the wall of fear, non-understanding and hatred that is being artificially created between Ukraine and the occupied territories.” She offers dialogue to lead millions of citizens out of a “state of stress.”

Finally, the leader of the Batkivshchyna party proposes forcing Russia to cover financially all the restorative processes in Ukraine. As the aggressor, Russia must pay—to each citizen, Ukrainian business, and the state—for the damage it has caused by annexing Crimea and supporting the Donbas separatists.

The current president, Petro Poroshenko (supported by 16.8 percent of Ukrainians likely to vote) aims at achieving peace as well. His program  defines peace as “the full restoration of the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine” and “the indisputable recognition by Moscow of our right to move our own way.” To achieve this peace, Poroshenko proposes continuing to build a strong army and developing closer ties with NATO allies. He also states that “only full membership in the EU and NATO would finally and irrevocably guarantee our Ukrainian independence … and national security.” Poroshenko promises to apply for these memberships in 2023.

The president also sees the army’s development as an opportunity for science and industry to advance in Ukraine. As journalists have recently uncovered, the Ukrainian military industry is still dependent on some products of the Russian military complex. This dependence, as well as the embezzlement associated with it, was lately slammed by the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

The army’s modernization should go hand in hand with the improved social safety net for citizens and improved pay scales for officers and soldiers. Also, all the victims of Russia’s aggression should receive reimbursement and reparations for the lands, businesses, and loved ones they have lost.

These steps, in combination with the diplomatic efforts of Ukraine’s transatlantic allies and international sanctions against Russia, should lead to the entire “de-occupation” of the Donbas and Crimea and peace for Ukraine, Poroshenko expects.

Thus the platforms of the current leading electoral candidates are closely aligned in how they plan to achieve peace through pursuing diplomatic measures, developing the Ukrainian army, and maintaining close ties with NATO. Diplomacy must help end the war, all agree, and Russia should pay for the damage it has caused. A reformed Ukrainian army should be able to defend citizens and the state from any immediate danger, while an alliance with NATO should put Ukraine in a stronger position with respect to fending off menacing actors in the future.

What divides the candidates is the issue of membership in NATO. Zelenskiy and Tymoshenko are less committed to it, while Poroshenko proposes to apply for it in the near future. Also, the diplomatic formats are seen differently: Zelenskiy prefers the Budapest format but also wants direct talks with Putin. Tymoshenko is more inclined to see the Budapest format as the main instrument, while Poroshenko prefers to have NATO as an ally in talks with Russia.

Despite the many issues dividing the current leaders in the presidential race, then, Zelenskiy’s, Poroshenko’s, and Tymoshenko’s platforms all seem reasonably close in their proposals to end the war and secure peace for Ukraine. It appears that the Ukrainian political elites have a common position on the key steps needed to reintegrate the country and achieve a stable security for the citizenry.

About the Author

Mykhailo Minakov

Mykhailo Minakov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Focus Ukraine Blog
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more