The World

Is Ukraine Due for Another Revolution?

There are warning signs beneath this year’s political developments.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Berlin on June 18.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Berlin on June 18.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The potential for another Ukrainian revolution festers beneath this year’s deceptively calm presidential and parliamentary elections. It would be the third one in 15 years, following the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Euro-Maidan uprising.

In April, 75 percent of voters elected celebrity comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy to replace the president who had led Ukraine since the 2014 revolution, Petro Poroshenko. Then in July, Zelenskiy’s party won a supermajority in Parliament, introducing single-party rule to Ukraine for the first time since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991—and empowering Zelenskiy to govern without a coalition.

Western experts have praised these elections as free and fair. But some Ukrainians see them as a subversion of democracy, believing the results were orchestrated by opportunist oligarchs behind a pro-Russian political technology project to elect an empty vessel—Zelenskiy—that can be filled and manipulated. Many activists, volunteers from the last revolution, and veterans of the ongoing war against Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east lament Zelenskiy’s rise as a symptom of their sick state unappreciative of the sacrifices and progress made since the 2014 Maidan.

Three groups now predominate: Zelenskiy’s protest-vote movement; the pro-Russians deposed five years ago, whose voters also back Zelenskiy; and a splintered resistance led by Poroshenko and the outgoing parliamentary chair—Andriy Parubiy, paramilitary commander of both Maidans. Fringe far-right groups from Parubiy’s radical nationalist past are also uneasily allied with this nominally pro-Western opposition, but at the same time resent Poroshenko because some veterans suspect him of war profiteering.

Before parliamentary elections, Zelenskiy told the media that his party would not form a coalition with either of the other groups. His sweeping victories at the polls ensure they won’t have to.

Zelenskiy is on-message about the EU, NATO, anti-corruption, investment, increasing standards of living, meeting unmet promises for impeachment, and ending MP immunity. But he has also hired loyalists from the pro-Russian regime of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych that was overthrown in 2014, criticized a sensitive language law, and indicated that he will implement the 2014–15 Minsk peace agreements.

Nationalists equate Minsk—a hasty deal to end the war in eastern Ukraine signed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Ukraine, Russia, and its separatist proxies—with surrender. And Euro-Atlantic experts’ optimism that a new government staffed by Yanukovych remnants can somehow also uphold liberal, market, and democratic ideals bewilders Ukraine’s pro-Western activists.

Even more provocatively, Ukraine’s pro-Russia party placed second in the July elections, a reversal that could cast a long shadow over the country’s westward trajectory should this party begin to reassert its influence. Critics claim Zelenskiy is latently pro-Russian anyway: pointing to Ukrainophobic humor from his comedy career, his hit TV show’s dramatization of a neo-Nazi coup—Russian propaganda depicts Ukraine’s post-revolutionary leaders as fascists—and his appointments of incendiary staff who served the Yanukovych regime ousted by 2014’s “revolution of dignity.” Now five years later, activists await the next indignity: Will it be surrender to Russia in eastern Ukraine, political persecution of Maidan leaders, or the humiliating return of Yanukovych himself?

Western-backed civil society groups warned Zelenskiy mere days after his inauguration that crossing their red lines might “lead to political instability” and that “consequences can be fatal.” 72 groups have now signed a 27-item list of security, foreign policy, economic, national identity, governance, and information policy reforms that—if jeopardized—they threaten will incite a third Maidan.

Zelenskiy hasn’t grossly erred yet, but Ukraine has patterns. Overcentralized authority has already twice provoked pro-Western nationalists to overrule a Russia-tolerant electorate. Both of those revolutions were also mobilized against Yanukovych, which makes the decision to reappoint his staff particularly provocative.

Between the 2019 elections, Yanukovych’s former chief of staff Andriy Portnov—who fled after 2014—felt safe enough to return from exile. He is rumored to exercise influence through another Yanukovych crony—Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan. Activists consider their rehabilitations to be an augur of things to come. A week before parliamentary voting, Portnov called on Facebook to purge opposition figures.

Other plausible recent milestones along the path to a third Maidan include an RPG attack on a pro-Russian TV station in Kyiv one week before parliamentary elections, neo-Nazis hanging effigies of Russia sympathizers in Kharkiv; and masked, heavily armed, military-age males releasing a video threatening violence against pro-Russians: “There will be no Russian World,” one of them says in the video, referring to a favorite Putin slogan. “It will end in morgues and hospitals.” This could just be rhetoric, but nationalists did stop attempts in 2014 to foment separatism in Kharkiv. A sniper shot the city’s corrupt pro-Russian mayor in the back and got away with it, too.

The grenade launcher attack in Kyiv stopped broadcast of Oliver Stone’s new film Revealing Ukraine, which argues that the far right was behind Ukraine’s 2014 Euro-Maidan. It gives nationalist nemesis, pro-Russia media tycoon Viktor Medvedchuk, who owns the channel—and whose daughter’s godfather is Russian President Vladimir Putin—a prominent platform to air anti-Western conspiracy theories in a friendly interview, with no indication of who Medvedchuk really is and what forces he represents.

The revolutionary center that drove Ukraine’s first two Maidans against those forces has coalesced into a movement dubbed “the 25 percent,” who voted for Poroshenko instead of Zelenskiy. But parliamentary elections revealed their actual approval rating: Poroshenko’s party earned only 9 percent of the vote and 26 seats. The united far-right ticket barely got 2 percent and no seats. (It should be noted here that a majority of Ukrainians also initially opposed the last revolution—those demonstrations didn’t gain broad appeal until Yanukovych used force against protesters and the Maidan snipers ultimately opened fire.)

Voters have now ejected most of Ukraine’s far-right MPs from office. This reversal leaves nationalists no option but the street or oblivion—and no one to blame but themselves or the electorate. A leader of the neo-Nazi Azov movement’s Veterans Brotherhood told me last year it’s voters’ fault that the country is a mess because most Ukrainians are stupid and don’t know what’s good for them. Not a winning message.

So, the good news is that militant nationalism is fractured and marginalized—no matter how many might sympathize with it. Zelenskiy could also be trying to buy some of their loyalties. Before parliamentary elections, he granted citizenship to several foreign fighters for service in Ukraine’s armed forces. A week later, one of them—a Russian neo-Nazi and Azov veteranattacked Poroshenko’s car. If Russia isn’t paying these people, it should be. Nothing makes Ukraine seem more unstable than they do.

Unless Zelenskiy suddenly begins to abuse his unprecedented concentration of power, the West must get ahead of its anti-democratic alternative—rule by the street. Any demonstrations, riots, or revolutions rejecting a government so overwhelmingly elected are exactly what Russia wants: reflexive control that makes Ukraine look more wild, illiberal, and ungovernable than the Kremlin ever could. Interpreting Russia’s near abroad through the prism of what Moscow wants, nothing would delight them more than a real fascist coup in Ukraine. The last Maidan may not have been one, but the next might be.