The Ukraine elections: What Russia wants

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This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum


With parliamentary elections in Ukraine approaching, Russia remains ambivalent about what it wants from the Ukrainian elections and how to prevent Ukraine's further integration with the West.

With parliamentary elections in Ukraine approaching, the parliament remains the last important part of the political system to be reconfigured after the winter revolution. Judging from the opinion polls, it seems safe to predict that President Petro Poroshenko’s new party will come first with 33-38 percent of the vote. The main question that remains is who will come second: the “Radical Party” of Oleh Lyashko or the “Popular Front” led by pro-Western Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk. Poroshenko will not win enough votes to form a government on his own, so he will be forced to set up a coalition.

Europe and the United States are concerned about whether the new parliament will help to boost Ukraine’s capacity for reform and European integration. But Russia remains very ambivalent about what it wants from the Ukrainian elections. Its major objective in Ukraine is to prevent further integration with the West, but it is not entirely clear how this can best be achieved.

On the one hand, Russia would like the new government to be as weak as possible. Many insiders claim that Moscow expects further chaos in Ukrainian politics, fueled by economic difficulties; according to IMF predictions, Ukraine’s GDP will shrink by 9 percent this year. This, the argument goes, will disappoint the European Union and the US and reduce their commitment to supporting a failed Ukrainian state. Russia would thus get more room to exercise its influence and conclude backdoor deals with the local elites, thereby reducing the likelihood of further integration westward. Many people in the Russian establishment would love to see Oleh Lyashko play a more important role in politics, because this would fit in well with the Kremlin narrative that right-wing nationalists are running the show in Kyiv. The person the Kremlin really does not want to see in the new government is Arseniy Yatseniuk, who comes across as an anti-Russia hardliner.

On the other hand, other Russian officials think that stronger support for Poroshenko would be in Moscow’s interests. The president is seen as a pragmatist with whom Russia could do business. Many people suggest that Poroshenko is limited by anti-Russian opposition; the stronger he gets, the more ready he will become to reach a compromise, which would otherwise be difficult to sell to Ukrainian domestic audiences.

One thing is clear. For the first time in the history of an independent Ukrainian state, the Kremlin’s options are limited. After Crimea and the war in the Donbas, no party can campaign on a pro-Russia ticket – in fact, quite the opposite. Russian TV channels are not as important in the campaign as they were during the previous elections just two years ago. The Ukrainian media is monitoring every candidate suspected of taking money from any sources with ties to the Kremlin. Former President Viktor Yanukovych’s “Party of the Regions” is not in the running at all.

In these circumstances, the best Moscow can hope for is that the party of former deputy prime minister Sergey Tigipko, “Strong Ukraine”, will come fourth in the elections (with around 7 percent) and remain visible in parliament. “Strong Ukraine” is the only party that tries to appeal to voters in the Donbas region and calls for an end to military operations. Vladislav Surkov, former first deputy head of the Russian presidential administration and now an aide to Putin, is overseeing Moscow’s Ukraine policy. Surkov is rumoured to be looking for new pro-Russian faces in Ukraine to create some channels of influence. However, whether his work will achieve any useful results remains to be seen.

Alexander Gabuev is a visiting fellow at ECFR.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: Wider Europe Forum, Wider Europe, Russia, EaP, Ukraine

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