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Ukraine Goes to the Polls on Sunday. Can Its Next President End the Frozen War With Russia?

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Relations between Russia and Ukraine can perhaps be best described as somewhere between a war and a cold war. Before 2014, the Ukrainian government wanted a strategic partnership with Russia. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 changed all that. Now, with Ukraine’s presidential elections approaching on March 31, ties with Russia are a key concern.

In April of this year, the two countries entered their sixth year of what is now a smoldering conflict in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. Ukraine demands that the Kremlin return Crimea and the occupied areas of Donbas. And from the Kremlin’s point of view, Ukraine’s government is illegitimate, run by a fascist junta. “Russia would consider ceasing fighting its war on the Ukrainian flank — but only if it drew Kiev closer,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, former Kremlin adviser. Meanwhile “Ukraine dreams of liberating itself from Russia.”

Ukraine has accused Russia of waging a disinformation war to create social unrest; the population’s attitudes toward Russia has hardened over the past five years, with about two-thirds of the population viewing Russia as an aggressor. “Ukrainians want peace, but the price of this varies. Right now, it is impossible for Ukraine to have relations with Russia without being a traitor,” Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian Member of Parliament tells TIME.

A peace resolution is in the Kremlin’s hands, says Anna Korbut, a fellow from the London-based think tank Chatham House, “but it’s up to Ukraine to define its red lines.”

But political analysts say Russia is not interested in ending the war. Control over Ukraine is part of Putin’s legitimacy, says Alexander Motyl, a political scientist at Rutgers University.“ He dare not admit he’s been defeated or admit he’s weak. It could jeopardize his grip on power at home,” Motyl says.

A new president in Ukraine could change a great deal. And the outcome remains difficult to predict, with polls indicating that the none of the three front-runners — the incumbent Petro Poroshenko, the political veteran Yulia Tymoshenko and the comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky — are on a clear path to victory. Here’s what to know about how each of them might impact Ukraine-Russia relations.

Petro Poroshenko

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko Visits "America's Newsroom"
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visits Fox News on February 20, 2019 in New York City.John Lamparski - Getty Images

A Poroshenko presidency is the most ‘comfortable’ and ‘convenient’ choice for the Kremlin, says Leschenko. “He’s predictable. They know his strengths and weaknesses.” There is “little hope of the status quo changing” if Poroshenko is re-elected, says Mikhail Minakov, Principal Investigator at a research center, the Kennan Institute and editor-in-chief of Focus Ukraine, the institute’s Ukraine focused blog. “The low intensity conflict will go on and reforms will continue to be faked, while the social pressure for economic reforms will intensify,” said Minakov.

Many Ukrainians feel that Poroshenko, 53, failed to live up to the promises he made when he became president in May 2014: to improve standards of living, ensure economic growth, strengthen rule of law and end the war. Now, he no longer gives a time frame for ceasefire and the Kremlin said it refuses to talk with Ukraine until there is a change in leadership.

Despite Poroshenko vowing to demolish the system of crony capitalism that flourished under Viktor Yanukovych and his predecessor, the culture of impunity surrounding corrupt elites continues to thrive. It remains the biggest challenge to reforming the country. Ordinary Ukrainians are stuck at a monthly average wage of $350 and one in six Ukrainians of working age migrate to Europe to work either temporarily or full time. And according to the Razumkov Center, 76 percent of Ukrainians think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Yulia Tymoshenko

Yulia Tymoshenko's Media Conference
Presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko talks to the media during a press conference in Kiev, Ukraine, March 7, 2019. (Photo by Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)NurPhoto via Getty Images

The politically fierce Tymoshenko presents herself as someone who can bring Russia back to the negotiating table, says Korbut, the Chatham House analyst.

Once the hero of a 2004 popular uprising against election fraud, nicknamed the “gas princess” for her 2009 gas deal with Russia, and imprisoned for two and half years by Yanukovych, Tymoshenko has a strong political reputation. She served as Prime Minister for eight months in 2005, and just over 2 years between 2007 and 2010. Until recently, the 58-year-old was leading in the polls.

She recently proposed a new format of negotiations, the ‘Budapest Plus’ — for ending the war in Donbas and returning Crimea to Ukraine — by holding talks with leaders from the U.S., France, Germany, the E.U., China and Russia. Korbut says the talks could give Russia the chance to make concessions without looking weak, including indirectly allowing Russia to exit Donbas while saving face.

But Tymoshenko’s “price for peace,” says the Minakov of the Kenan Institute, could mean forgetting about membership of the E.U. and NATO. And in Ukraine, the dream of E.U. membership remains strong, with at least half the population in favor.

Volodymyr Zelensky

Volodymyr Zelensky candidate for the post of President of
Volodymyr Zelensky is pictured on March 13, 2019.Aleksandr Gusev/Pacific Press -LightRocket via Getty Images

The fresh-faced Zelensky, 41, appeals to many Ukrainians who are tired of the political class. But with his political experience confined to playing the president in a popular TV show and his stance on Russia unclear, many analysts fear he could enter into an agreement that favors Russia more than Ukraine. During a televised interview late last year, Zelensky said: “I’ll ask what Russia wants and what Ukraine wants and we’ll meet in the middle.” The comment prompted criticism, with some denouncing his views on Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Many Ukrainians find Zelensky’s statements alarming. “What concessions can he offer from Ukraine? Is it that he will give up Crimea? Which of Ukraine’s red lines is he willing to overstep?” Korbut asks. “It’s hard to imagine what any potential president can offer to satisfy Russia’s appetite without sparking resistance in Ukraine.”

“Moscow will only be satisfied with Zelensky, since his victory will inevitably be associated with even greater destabilization and regrouping within the Ukrainian elites. This is beneficial to the Kremlin,” says Irina Busygina, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

What does Russia want?

The Kremlin wants to make an example out of Ukraine to Russians watching at home. Busygina says Moscow wants to show that “color revolutions” only lead to “chaos and collapse,” and that choosing to be part of Europe is “fatal.” Against this backdrop, Russia’s current course would look safe and stable.

Proving Russia’s greatness has never been more important for Putin. His approval ratings have recently dropped to a 13 year-low of 64 percent amid increasing frustrations over inflation, falling wages and a reduction in social welfare, according to the Levada Center, a Moscow-based independent polling agency. It marks a steep decline from his approval ratings of 89 percent following the annexation of Crimea. In July 2018, 40 percent of respondents said the government was going in the wrong direction, up from 14 percent in May 2014.

As long as Putinism is alive, Russia will try to control Ukraine, says Russian political scientist Andrei Piontkovsky. He calls it a “ideological, quasi-religious issue for Putin.” But most Ukrainians are unwilling to sacrifice their government’s independence.

For now, the countries are at a stalemate. Putin seems determined not to make any deals that would enhance Ukraine’s sovereignty, and Ukraine won’t make any deal to diminish sovereignty. That means the only way to end the stalemate would be if Ukraine’s next president chooses to redefine the red lines.

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