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On challenges to Zelensky's presidency and the best defense against Russian interference

Thomas E. Graham is a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also currently a managing director at Kissinger Associates, Inc., where he focuses on Russian and Eurasian affairs. He is a cofounder of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies program at Yale University and sits on its faculty steering committee. Graham was special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff from 2004 to 2007, during which he managed a White House-Kremlin strategic dialogue. He was director for Russian affairs on the staff from 2002 to 2004.

1. How would you assess the first four months of the presidency of Volodymyr Zelensky? Is he moving Ukraine in a positive direction?

Zelensky has enjoyed much success. He led his party to a convincing victory in the Rada elections. He has taken steps to strengthen the agencies combatting corruption. He has shown some toughness in dealing with Russia.

That said, there are some worrying signs. Most alarming is the reappearance of Kolomoisky, which raises doubts about Zelensky’s commitment to reining in the oligarchs, who have undermined Ukraine’s reform effort. Moreover, the impeachment inquiry in the United States will challenge Zelensky’s skill in managing what remains Ukraine’s most important bilateral relationship.

2. What is your opinion as to the recent developments regarding the Donbas region? Do you think there is a possibility of a thaw in relations between Ukraine and Russia, or there is a long way to go before a peace Ukraine can be reached?

There have been some positive steps recently, such as the prisoner exchange, and there is a chance to defuse tensions in Russian-Ukrainian relations. But the sides are still far apart in their interpretations of the Minsk agreements, or the Steinmeier formula for that matter. It is not clear how the gap can be bridged.

3. What is your opinion about the current situation with Crimea? What extra steps should be taken by Ukrainian authorities to ensure its gradual return to Ukraine, and what is a likelihood of a positive outcome in the foreseeable future?

The hard truth is that Crimea is not going to return to Ukraine, not only in the near term but over the long term. Moscow is tightening its control over Crimea. More sanctions are not going to force Moscow to capitulate. Moreover, there is little evidence that the local population has any interest in rejoining Ukraine. Perhaps the emergence of a strong, prosperous, democratic Ukraine might cause Crimeans to reconsider. But such a Ukraine is a long-term prospect. Ukrainians should be striving to build such a Ukraine irrespective of the implications for Crimea. Ukraine can prosper without Crimea.

4. Where do you think Russia has failed and succeeded in Ukraine, and what lessons Ukraine could learn from that?

Much depends on what you think Moscow’s goals are. If the goal was to destabilize Ukraine by using the conflict in the East to deflect attention from domestic political and socio-economic challenges, then it has had some success. Poroshenko used the conflict as an excuse for not confronting these challenges more vigorously. Zelensky now has the chance to change this situation. If Moscow’s goal was to draw Ukraine more tightly into Russia’s orbit, then Moscow has failed. Through its aggression, Moscow has lost Ukraine for at least a generation.

5. Do you think Ukraine is successfully combating Russia’s information warfare and other techniques in Ukraine? What steps should Ukraine take to cope with them more effectively?

The best defense against Russian interference is a mature, robust civil society that integrates all nationalities, and most importantly, ethnic Russians, into a Ukrainian political community. In the struggle against Russian interference, care must be taken not to alienate ethnic Russians but to

make them feel at home in Ukraine. That includes the ethnic Russians in the Donbas.

6. What key risks to Ukraine statehood do you see at the moment, and how could Ukraine counteract them?

As they have been since Ukraine regained its independence in 1991, the gravest risks to Ukrainian statehood are domestic in origin. Corrupt oligarchs continue to block economic progress. Ineffective and inefficient government bureaucracy cannot administer the country properly. Zelensky’s presidency offers a chance to change the country’s trajectory, but it will require a concerted effort by civil society to succeed.

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