What Zelenskiy’s Victory Means for Ukraine

The temptation in Kyiv and elsewhere is to look past the overwhelming victory by upstart Volodymyr Zelenskiy over incumbent Petro Poroshenko and try to divine what it means for Ukraine. This piece will yield to that temptation—but after acknowledging the importance of what happened Sunday and throughout the election campaign. Free and fair elections in a region not known for them should not be taken for granted.

Ukraine has developed a strong track record—with a few notable exceptions such as the 2010 local elections and the 2004 second-round presidential election that precipitated the Orange Revolution—of conducting decent elections. Ukrainians take their elections seriously and turn out to vote in numbers that exceed those in the United States.

In a region in which incumbents usually do not go quietly, Poroshenko quickly and graciously accepted the results. That speaks well of him and of Ukraine’s democratic maturity.

No one knew who would win Ukraine’s presidential race, a rarity in the region. Those who didn’t make it into the April 21 runoff accepted the results. There was no violence in the run-up to either round. Two days before the second round, on April 19, Poroshenko and Zelenskiy squared off in a raucous debate before a stadium audience, the envy of Russian and Belarusian citizens but not of the leaders in those countries.

The only glaring problem with the election was the responsibility not of Ukrainian authorities but of the Kremlin. As a result of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and parts of the Donbas, nearly 16 percent of Ukrainian voters were de facto disenfranchised or faced great difficulty participating in the process. That this election took place at all, much like the elections in 2014, despite Russia’s war and invasion speaks volumes of Ukrainians’ determination to not let anyone, including Putin, derail them from their democratic, Euro-Atlantic-oriented path.

Ukraine divides power between the presidency and the parliament, and the Rada will hold elections in October that are as, if not, more important than the presidential race. The parliamentary elections may be the Kremlin’s next target, given their failure to disrupt and delegitimize Ukraine’s presidential election.

For the international community, a Europe whole, free, and at peace can never be realized without Ukraine. The United States, Canada (which has a sizable Ukrainian diaspora population), and our European allies must remain committed to supporting Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations by keeping the doors open to NATO and the European Union once Ukraine satisfies the admissions criteria. The West must not let Russian occupation of part of Ukrainian territory stand nor become a de facto veto over Ukraine’s integrationist goals. Democratic success in Ukraine is vital to Ukrainians, but it will also advance Western interests and eventually redound to the benefits of liberal-minded Russians as well. That, after all, is why Putin is so scared of seeing Ukraine succeed.