While the world mourns the victims of today’s terrorist atrocities in Sri Lanka, Ukraine has conducted its first election since 2014 – the year in which the fragmented post-Soviet republic changed forever. This year, the debates were not a contest between those seeking to reverse the tide of 2014 versus those committed to an even more radically pro-western approach, but instead the question uniformly revolved around how a country that before 2014 was ethnically and religious fragmented, poor, corrupt and seemingly ungovernable has become even worse by all objective measurements.
Because of the popular discontent in the country due to the worsening of already abysmal economic conditions, it was always going to be difficult for outgoing President Petro Poroshenko to play the jingoistic anti-Russian/anti-Donbass card when most Ukrainian citizens are becoming more worried about the price of gas and the price of food than they are worried about playing a game of political football started by Barack Obama.
As such, the entire political class that took charge after 2014 (ironically many such people were connected to the old regime they claimed to hate) are roundly reviled throughout Ukraine. Against this background, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky decided to run for president and early indications are that he has won the election in a landslide.
Zelensky’s campaign was one based on a broadly anti-corruption platform that was as pro-western and as anti-Russian as that of his closest rivals. The difference was that for the first time in its history, Ukraine had a political figure with a human face rather than that of a cold, calculating oligarch aspiring to be an autocrat. Outside of Ukraine and Russia, Zelensky’s candidacy has received the most attention in Israel.
Israeli media have become excited by the fact that Ukraine will now have a Jewish head of state and one whose chief backers are particularly close to Tel Aviv. While Israel has often condemned the rise in genuine antisemitism throughout much of Ukraine, Tel Aviv has nevertheless increased its economic relations with Kiev since 2014. As such, it can be assured that under Zelensky, relations between Tel Aviv and Kiev will continue to grow.
This incidentally comes at a time when Russia and Israel are becoming increasingly close allies as was recently detailed in a Eurasia Future piece by Andrew Korybko. Whilst Moscow and Kiev cannot agree on seemingly anything at this point in history, they can agree on one thing: Israel is considered a friendly nation and a valued partner.
Just because Vladimir Putin is a friend of Israel and something of a philosemitie, it does not automatically mean that he will develop a warm relationship with a Ukrainian leader who happens to be Jewish and who happens to be friendly with prominent Israeli businessmen. However, because the Kremlin has long sought to reach some sort of conclusion to the stand off with Ukraine (against the wishes of many Russian patriots and the two main opposition parties), a fresh face in Kiev who has ties to Israelis may well be a small step towards bridging the gap between his own government and Moscow.
None of this will likely play out before the cameras because in much of Ukraine it is considered near treasonous to talk of anything resembling a detente with Moscow. Likewise, at a time when Vladimir Putin’s popularity is dipping due to an unpopular proposed pension reform and internal economic/infrastructural issues, it would be viewed by at least some Russian patriots as a sell out to effectively compromise with a Kiev regime that has attempted to commit ethnic cleansing against the people of Donbass.
That being said, behind the scenes things will likely be very different, just as they were after 2015 when Russia and Turkey rapidly mended ties out of the view of the public, before later becoming openly close partners as they are today.
As a political novice in a country whose “experienced politicians” are self-evidently nothing to learn by, Zelensky may well seek advice from Israeli experts, many of whom are becoming increasingly close to Putin’s Russia. This could represent the beginning of a slowly turning tide for both Moscow and Kiev.