I spoke last week to Petro Okhotin, Ukrainian political strategist and co-author of the book “Win the election: step-by-step instructions” to obtain an impression and preliminary assessment of how Russia’s war against Ukraine has impacted on domestic politics. Here’s a summary of our discussion.
[Klitina] You’re a successful political strategist, but now you’re a member of Ukraine’s Armed Forces?
[Okhotin] Yes. Following the Russian attack on Ukraine on Feb. 24, when the city of Kyiv appeared to be in danger, I decided to sign up for the Kyiv territorial defense and performed various assigned tasks. Since the beginning of May, I have been carrying out military duties in the east of the country.
[Klitina] In the initial weeks of Russia’s invasion, the “political process” in Ukraine experienced a sudden numbness. Party boundaries were erased. Politicians, like ordinary people, had only two options: to help the country, or to somehow leave. Everyone made their personal choice. What’s your assessment of this political truce and sense of unity? Is it genuine?
[Okhotin] I think that Russian intelligence considered Ukrainian internal political division as something they could exploit. But their expectations were not borne out. Putin has actually united all the political forces in Ukraine. Even some members of pro-Russian political party Opposition Platform – For Life (OPZZh), began to distance themselves from this political force and what it represented.
It is worth noting that all the parliamentary parties began to emphasize that they have representatives connected with Ukraine’s military in their teams. For example, lawmaker Andriy Kozhemyakin from Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party, a retired Security Service General, gave an interview on April 16 to Olesya Batsman in which affirmed his confidence in Ukraine’s eventual victory.
Another example is Tetiana Chornovol, a former lawmaker who was very critical of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration. Now she is also in the military.
Chornovil has been destroying Russian tanks and actively posting photos from the frontline.
Orest Vilkul the head of the Kryvyi Rih military administration, who was a member of the OPZZh party and was considered a pro-Russian politician before the war, has been heading the defense in his region.
On March 23, Vilkul stated that even though he is a “Russian-speaker,” he is against the Russian invasion.
“Kryvyi Rih region is united around the president. He will go down in history as a great president of a great nation. Talking about politics at this moment is nonsense,” Vilkul said.
[Klitina] After several weeks of the war, politicians nevertheless appeared to split into two camps, tentatively named “Zelensky” and “non-Zelensky.” The new peak of support for the president and his explosive popularity in the world have jeopardized the careers of many politicians. Do you think that Ukrainian political trends will change after the war? If so, what changes are you expecting?
[Okhotin] The war will significantly change the political trends in the country. Local leaders who took part in the defense of their cities, towns and villages will be politically strengthened.
I expect that the more prominent military figures will try their hand in politics. There will be a growing demand for technocrats, while managers who can organize international support and economic adjustment processes will also have a chance to succeed in the political arena.
In my opinion, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Kyrylo Tymoshenko, and Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov, have bright opportunities for political growth. They play a significant role in infrastructure renewal, which is important for both defense and evacuation, and humanitarian aid logistics during the war.
The war has also shone a light on talented foreign affairs diplomats, such as Head of the Ukrainian delegation to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly and simultaneously Deputy Head of the Committee on European Integration, Maria Mezentseva, as well as First Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine and simultaneously Minister of Economic Development and Trade of Ukraine, Yulia Svyrydenko. They have worked hard to ensure that Russia’s aggression received appropriate legal and economic assessment by the international community. Perhaps people like these will be recognized in the new political set-up.
From the security sphere, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi and Chief of Defence Intelligence Kyrylo Budanov have increased their popularity and political influence during the war.
[Klitina] On March 20, the National Security and Defense Council suspended the activities of all pro-Russian parties in Ukraine. The OPZZh faction within parliament has been dissolved. On April 21, the Parliament of Ukraine, during its regular session, announced the creation of a new parliamentary group of former members of the OPZZh faction. This Platform for Life and Peace group includes 25 deputies chaired by Yuriy Boyko, who is considered to be one of the prime proponents of closer relations with Russia. How do you assess the political chances of OPZZh and its rebranding? Does this pro-Russian political force have a chance to survive after the war?
[Okhotin] Leading businessmen, often termed oligarchs, are interested in gaining power, with politics as a tool. The idea of OPZZh as a party of friendship with Moscow is dead. Boyko is likely to distance himself from pro-Russian rhetoric and the renewed OPZZh party is likely to shape its political future through the image of “effective businessmen.” The oligarchs will try to gain political influence by financing “spoilers” – technical, political projects. But Zelensky’s struggle against the oligarchs, if renewed in earnest, would continue to threaten their activities.
[Klitina]The fifth President of Ukraine, the leader of “European Solidarity” Petro Poroshenko, has called on Ukrainians during the war with Russia to refrain from political activities promoting discord and harming the state. How do you assess the prospects of Poroshenko and his party after the war?
[Okhotin] Poroshenko has lost his monopoly on using the army’s image in political rhetoric. The main task of his political technologists will be to find a new positioning. I predict that the basis of this will be a regional approach – the best bet for this party remains the electorate in western Ukraine.
[Klitina] According to the last opinion polls conducted on March 1, 93% of Ukrainians support the activities of President Zelensky (Source: Rating). Several members of the president’s team spelled out their thoughts on the necessity for early snap elections to parliament, local government, and the presidency after the war. How do you assess the prospect of early presidential elections after the war? Who do you consider to be Zelensky’s main political opponents in the future?
[Okhotin] I consider the prospect of a post-war presidential election as a realistic scenario. This step will preserve the legitimacy of the government. Let’s not forget: Russia will continue to carry out information and psychological operations against Ukraine, so Kyiv must be proactive. Personally, Zelensky has a unique chance to turn competitors into allies, guided by the logic of national unity. For example, such a strategy can be applied to the Klitschko brothers, who have international recognition and specific authority in Ukraine. Only Poroshenko will likely build his campaign on sharp criticism of Zelensky. Of course, other candidates are likely to emerge after the war. It’s difficult though at this stage to identify specific people due to the peculiarities of communication during martial law.
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