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5 years of Zelenskyy's presidency: Pain points Russia pressing on and risks for Ukraine's government

5 years of Zelenskyy's presidency: Pain points Russia pressing on and risks for Ukraine's government President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy (photo: Vitalii Nosach / RBC-Ukraine)

RBC-Ukraine analyzes what Ukraine faces in the sixth year of Volodymyr Zelenskyy's presidency and how Russia will try to spin the situation soon.

When five years ago, on May 20, 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy walked into the Verkhovna Rada for his inauguration and high-fived his supporters gathered outside the parliament, he had a different vision of his five years as president. In addition to the current internal Ukrainian turmoil, his term included the COVID-19 pandemic considered the most difficult challenge for 2020 - and then the full-scale Russian invasion, which made all previous problems seem insignificant.

If the Russian invasion had not happened, Ukraine would now be preparing for the inauguration of a new head of state. But because of the great war, Ukraine is now thinking not about elections, inauguration, or reformatting the parliament, but about the Russian offensive in the Kharkiv region, problems in the energy sector, and, of course, mobilization.

To these objective difficulties are added the ones that have been pulled out of the air. For several months now, Russia has been trying to swing the theme of Zelenskyy's alleged illegitimacy as President after May 20, the end of his five-year term. The day before, in Beijing, Vladimir Putin made it clear in plain text that from now on, Russia would be pushing the illegitimacy theme even more actively.

Ukraine's military and political leadership had long warned that the end of May and June would be difficult for Ukraine, even by its usual standards. The pressure on the frontline and strikes in the energy sector are compounded by the unpopular topic of mobilization through social media and the infection of Ukrainians with the illegitimacy thought virus.

Obviously, according to Russian calculations, all of this together should lead to an explosion of discontent in Ukraine, a change or at least a weakening of the government, and, as a result, defeat at the front.

Despite many years of attempts, Russians have not learned to understand internal Ukrainian processes. In particular, not every protest against the government, whether on the street or Facebook, necessarily has pro-Russian sympathies. And starting in 2022, it certainly does not. With maniacal persistence, Putin's propaganda, led by Putin himself, has been promoting completely absurd narratives for more than a decade, such as the coup d'etat that the Kremlin claims the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity was. Such messages may have their mobilizing content for the domestic Russian audience, but for the Ukrainian audience, they are completely meaningless. Again, especially from February to February 2022.

On the other hand, internal cataclysms do not necessarily have to be pro-Russian to lead to the collapse of a state - they can be enough in themselves, especially in difficult times of war. The best proof of this is the failure of the Ukrainian liberation struggle a century ago when it was the war between different groups within Ukraine itself that eventually led to Soviet occupation.

Probably not all Ukrainians reflect so deeply. But the understanding that the enemy is in Moscow, not Kyiv, has nevertheless become entrenched in their minds. The Ukrainian people have also changed and matured over the past two-plus years, albeit not as much as many describe on social media.

Speaking to RBC-Ukraine, Oleksii Antypovych, head of the Rating sociological group, confirms that there are no grounds for the Russians to start any serious fire in Ukraine. "All this cannot become a spark for the Russians to provoke any uprisings, re-elections, Maidan, etc. in Ukraine. I see no reason for these factors (offensive, energy, mobilization, so-called illegitimacy - ed.). We can only inflame ourselves with questions of justice, and we have this for everything: mobilization, corruption, and so on. But Ukrainians know very well where they live. Ukrainians will not engage in internal struggle precisely because we have an external aggressor," he says.

Antypovych does not believe in the illegitimacy theme that Russians are pushing. According to him, it doesn't work for anyone in Ukraine and has no prospects. This is because two-thirds of Ukrainians still trust the President, and because the majority does not support holding elections in the current conditions: because of the inability to conduct a normal campaign and voting, millions of voters abroad and hundreds of thousands in the trenches, and the spending of budget money that would be much better spent on the Ukrainian Armed Forces. "There will be much more questions about the legitimacy of such elections than about the legitimacy of the President or the Verkhovna Rada," he summarizes.

Over the five years of the presidency (especially the second half), Zelenskyy has certainly changed. The most obvious changes, of course, are external. Photos of the President from 2019 and 2024 are a popular template for before/after memes.

But much more interesting, of course, are the internal changes. One of Zelenskyy's associates from the beginning of his presidential campaign says that at the beginning of his term, the President's main goal was to understand how everything works, in the middle - to try to do something good, and from February 24, 2022 - to ensure Ukraine's victory through diplomacy and accession to the European Union and NATO.

At the same time, according to the source, Zelenskyy's management style has remained unchanged. "This is the core story: curiosity, 'I'm always right' - but I have to listen to everyone, healthy aggression, humor, jokes, improvisation, drive - all of this remains," he says.

Zelenskyy's future is inextricably linked to how and when the war ends. And it cannot be ruled out that in the end, he will have to make compromises of varying degrees of pain. The President's entourage assures him that if he realizes that the majority of the population more or less accepts this compromise, on the principle that it could be worse, then he will go for a second term. If not, then he won't.

"But now everything is aimed at not losing, and preferably winning," the source says. However, victory, if it comes, is still a long way off in any case.

At his last meeting with journalists, Zelenskyy publicly acknowledged what hundreds and thousands of articles have already been written about: The West is frankly afraid of Russia's defeat in the war, which would have unpredictable consequences.

The situation will not change shortly. Globally, this shaky balance - Ukraine must win, but Russia must not lose - can only be shaken by Donald Trump's victory in the November presidential election in the United States. The consequences of a change of power in the White House will be unpredictable, especially for its possible new owner.

If the United States continues to follow its current course, which is headed by preventing escalation, the war in its current hot phase will continue indefinitely.

And, as a result, Zelenskyy's presidency will last the same amount of time. Unless at some point, in a year or two or three, a real demand for a change of government appears and strengthens in society. Or at least its procedure through elections, which will give Zelenskyy a more than realistic chance of being re-elected.

Until then, Ukrainians will have to continue to endure all the hardships associated with the war. Sociologist Oleksii Antypovych says that his agency has tried in various ways to find out from Ukrainians the limit of their patience. "The majority of Ukrainians are ready to endure as much as it takes for Ukrainian victory. This is the basic answer that does not change," he says.

The Russians will not be able to turn the Ukrainian boat over unless it is done by the Ukrainians themselves.

However, the government should not be complacent about the lack of democratic rotation, which no one is demanding in the current situation. The flip side of wartime is a naturally heightened sense of justice, a demand for honesty and transparency in everything from mobilization to power outages. At the beginning of his sixth year in office, Zelenskyy is not passing this exam with flying colors.