The president of Ukraine has primary responsibility for managing national security and foreign relations. But ahead of the first round of the presidential election on 31 March, candidates mainly exchanged views on issues that are the responsibility of the government not the president: anti-corruption measures, gas prices and social benefits.
The focus on domestic issues reflects the fact that there is broad consensus in society on Ukraine’s foreign policy orientation. To this extent, President Petro Poroshenko is a victim of his success. After 2014, he was instrumental in building international support for Ukraine.
This led to the IMF’s stabilization package and the rapid implementation of the Association Agreement with the EU. In the defence sphere, Poroshenko persuaded NATO and individual Alliance members to provide Ukraine with strong political backing and practical assistance to re-build the armed forces.
This support has continued. In 2018, the US Congress allocated $250 million for military assistance to Ukraine, including the supply of defensive weapons. Canada and the UK remain significant providers of training and financial support.
Poroshenko has placed his management of relations with the EU and NATO at the centre of his campaign. In February, the parliament adopted the amendments to the constitution committing Ukraine to seeking membership of both the EU and NATO. Describing this goal as his ‘strategic mission’, Poroshenko set the bold target of formally applying for EU membership and receiving a NATO membership action plan by 2023. Opinion polls currently show that over 50% of voters support joining the EU, with NATO membership backed by over 40%.
The problem facing Poroshenko’s campaign is that his proven abilities on the international stage do not translate into support at the polls. Visa-free travel with the EU, possibly one of his biggest achievements, did not resonate as such with voters. In the first round, Poroshenko took 15.95% of the vote against 30.24% for Volodymyr Zelensky, his opponent in the run-off on 21 April.
As a political novice, Zelensky lacks knowledge of foreign policy and defence issues and is only just beginning to build ties with leaders abroad. In common with the rest of his campaign, his responses to questions about foreign relations have been strikingly vague. Yet he has been careful to ensure that voters can outwardly see little difference between his position on the EU and NATO and Poroshenko’s. He favours membership of both organisations, but insists on a referendum for joining NATO.
Prior to the first round, Zelensky’s campaign team had no foreign policy advisers. This led to errors in answering basic questions. For example, Zelensky said that he would establish an office for coordinating integration with the EU within the Cabinet of Ministers. Yet such an office has been operational since 2017. He also called for the EU to provide Ukraine with a membership action plan even though no such mechanism exists. Similarly, his website stated that NATO had 12 member states.
Zelensky has also failed to talk specifics about how he would seek a settlement in Donbas and manage the issue of Crimea. In his campaign programme, he simply vowed to seek a ceasefire, strengthen the army and seek dialogue with Russia. He later stated that he would meet President Putin and ask what he wanted in Donbas. This met with serious criticism since many Ukrainians found this question naively inappropriate after five years of war.
Straight after the first round, his rhetoric changed. Zelensky said instead that he would meet with Putin after the return of the occupied territories and demand how much compensation Russia would pay for the damage caused to Ukraine.
Not surprisingly, Ukrainian security experts are nervous that Putin could take advantage of Zelensky’s inexperience of political negotiation in ways that were impossible with Poroshenko.
During his time in office, Poroshenko has made regular visits to the front line and placed emphasis on upgrading Ukraine’s armed forces to bring them into line with NATO standards. ‘Army’ became one of the main slogans of his campaign, but this pillar was badly damaged in the run-up to the vote by a defence-related corruption scandal.
The first-round results showed that in the armed forces too, there were mixed views of Poroshenko. Military personnel on the front line voted in roughly equal numbers for Poroshenko and Zelensky.
The Zelensky team clearly bet correctly that voters would be more interested in seeing a change of personality in the president’s office than the details of policies.
Such a campaign anchored on generalities and without experts means that should Zelensky win, Ukraine’s security policy could change in emphasis if not substance. The broad consensus in society around the need for Euro-Atlantic integration together with the recent constitutional amendments suggest that the declared course under Poroshenko will outwardly remain the same.
Yet it is hard to say whether it will be pursued with similar vigour. It is equally hard to predict whether there will be any meaningful change in Ukraine’s efforts to re-establish sovereignty in the occupied territories and manage relations with Russia.