On March 31, Ukrainians will head to the polls for one of the most pivotal and unusual elections in the country's post-Soviet history. This will be the first presidential election since the immediate aftermath of the country's Western-backed Euromaidan uprising in 2014, in which large-scale protests overthrew pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, clearing a path for the pro-Western Petro Poroshenko to capture the post in May 2014. But five years after Euromaidan, Ukraine has yet to find its political footing, as evidenced by the fact that Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko — two familiar faces in Ukraine's political scene — are trailing Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old TV star and comedian with no previous political experience, by a wide margin. But regardless of who wins the election, one thing is clear: Ukraine's pro-Western orientation is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Following Euromaidan, Ukraine became ground zero for Moscow's expansion of its hybrid warfare strategy, but the country's decisive break from its powerful eastern neighbor has laid bare some of the limitations of such Russian activity.
Ukraine has long been a battleground between Russia and the West. The consequences of its 2014 Euromaidan uprising have rippled far and wide over the past half-decade. As Ukraine prepares for a presidential election — and the future beyond — it will be a vital test case for the evolution of Russia's hybrid warfare strategy, since it showcases both the impact of the strategy and its ultimate limitations.
The Comedian Who Could be President
The latest opinion polls released by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology on March 25 show Zelenskiy with 32.1 percent of support, far ahead of Poroshenko's 17.1 percent and Timoshenko's 12.5 percent. It is worth noting that pre-election polls in Ukraine can prove unreliable, but Zelenskiy's substantial lead over his two main opponents (as well as a field of nearly 40 other presidential candidates) shows that the star of the popular TV comedy series "Servant of the People," in which he plays the president, has a good chance of joining the ranks of U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro as anti-establishment candidates who unexpectedly upended the political status quo in their countries.
Zelenskiy's rapid rise is contextualized by Ukraine's post-Euromaidan political climate, in which lofty expectations of significant change remain largely unfulfilled. In terms of foreign policy, Ukraine has made important strides in its bid to integrate with the West under Poroshenko, as Kiev has concluded a free trade and visa-free agreement with Brussels, while the United States and NATO have increased security support for the country. Still, membership in either the European Union or NATO remains a distant dream despite Poroshenko's initiative to enshrine Ukraine's desire to join these blocs in the country's constitution. Such aspirations have come at a high cost, including a prolonged conflict with Russia that has led to the loss of Crimea and Donbas — as well as over 10,000 lives.
On the domestic front, there has also been a mix of progress and setbacks over the past five years. Reforms in the energy sector, while lessening Ukraine's dependence on Russia, have raised utility costs substantially. In the meantime, wages have not kept pace with inflation, while efforts to tackle corruption through judicial and legal reform have largely stalled. Against this backdrop, Zelenskiy is a protest candidate against the powers that be; in such a situation, his fresh face and dearth of political experience is not a weakness for many voters, but rather a positive sign that he can shake things up.
Ukraine and the Russia-West Standoff
The impact of Euromaidan has also traveled well beyond Ukraine's borders, sending ripple effects throughout Eurasia and the West. While the revolution was not the first Western-supported uprising to occur in Russia's backyard (a wave of color revolutions, including one in Ukraine, preceded it earlier in the century), it was by far the most violent and most enduring in terms of its implications. For Russia, Euromaidan posed a major threat to its strategic interests and represented the biggest breach between Moscow and the West since the Cold War, fundamentally altering the way Russia interacts with the West.
Russia's initial reaction to the uprising serves as a case in point. Rather than pursue a formal military invasion of Ukraine, Russia sent in "little green men," or unmarked military personnel, to Crimea and, later, eastern Ukraine in a bid to spawn counter-Euromaidan political movements and forces to oppose the new government in Kiev. At the time, Russia's actions seemed like a thinly veiled effort to cover its tracks and avoid blame for a direct military intervention. In retrospect, however, these were the baby steps in a profound shift in Russian strategy to something different: hybrid warfare.
To be sure, hybrid warfare is not a new concept to either Russia or other states all the way back to antiquity. However, the manner in which Moscow waged hybrid warfare underwent a significant evolution and expansion after Euromaidan. While Russia had previously used hybrid tactics in a restricted manner to achieve limited objectives, such as during the Russia-Georgia War in 2008, Moscow expanded the tactics tremendously in both scope and breadth after Euromaidan in 2014. Russia's techniques grew to encompass everything from targeted assassinations and other covert security operations to cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. All of these were designed — with varying degrees of intensity and effectiveness — to weaken the Ukrainian state and undermine its efforts to align and integrate with the West.
Using Ukraine as a test case, Russia applied some or all of these expanded hybrid warfare techniques to other pro-Western countries in the former Soviet periphery, such as Moldova and Georgia, so as to undermine their efforts to integrate with the West. Russia expanded its political and economic backing for pro-Moscow parties like the Socialists in Moldova and boosted security support for contested territories like Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia also looked further afield to wield its enhanced tools, supporting Euroskeptic parties in Germany and Italy or establishing entire bot armies on social media platforms with the ultimate aim of fomenting divisions and sowing chaos in the West. Naturally, the scope of Russia's tools varied based on the country it was targeting: Moscow was not willing to challenge countries like the United States or France in a direct military sense, but it was willing to conduct cyberattacks and meddle in their political systems during critical elections.
Euromaidan's Global Reverberations
Russia's prolonged standoff with the West has also had a significant impact on the manner in which Moscow interacts with the rest of the world. Just a year after the Euromaidan uprising, Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict, deploying military forces to back the government of Bashar al Assad against U.S.- and Western-backed rebels. As in Ukraine, Russia's military involvement in Syria began with a small and unofficial presence to test the waters before growing to include a much larger and more powerful force. Russia's intervention also demonstrated that the country was ready and willing to challenge the West not only in the post-Soviet space but also in areas further afield like the Middle East.
Today, signs are emerging that Moscow could go even more global in its use of hybrid warfare. Russia's use of covert or mercenary forces has spread to regions like Africa, including in Libya and the Central African Republic, and even as far as Venezuela. What's more, Russia could bolster its military presence in Venezuela, especially after Russian military planes recently landed in Caracas with more than 100 troops and advisers. If so, Russia's forays into Venezuela would share important similarities with previous hybrid interventions in Ukraine or Syria, both in terms of tactics and its goals of enhancing its standing and leverage in its broader negotiations with the United States.
Euromaidan not only reoriented Ukraine's foreign policy toward the West, the decisiveness with which it occurred means the shift will likely endure long beyond this election.
Russia's Hybrid Strategy Hits a Wall
The West, however, has not been completely silent in the face of Russia's hybrid warfare activities. The United States and the European Union have ramped up sanctions against Russia, while NATO has bolstered its military presence in European border areas to protect front-line countries and reinforce defenses against Russia. In addition to conventional buildups, NATO members and countries like Ukraine have redoubled their efforts to enhance and integrate cybersecurity defenses and defend against online propaganda and disinformation tactics. Such efforts have led to diminishing returns for Russia, as the West has worked to both increase the cost of Russia's hybrid tactics and reduce their effectiveness.
Which brings us back to Ukraine. Despite public frustration over the uneven progress of reforms and the persistence of day-to-day difficulties for many citizens, the country has nevertheless undergone a major transformation over the past five years that is hard to ignore from a strategic perspective. Euromaidan not only reoriented Ukraine's foreign policy away from Russia and toward the West, the decisiveness with which it occurred means the shift will likely endure long beyond this election. Regardless of who wins on March 31, all leading candidates support the continuation of Ukraine's Western integration efforts; in fact, not a single pro-Russian candidate has a realistic chance of qualifying for the second round. That, in the end, is a major departure from Ukraine's polarized politics before Euromaidan, when the country was split roughly evenly between pro-Russian and pro-Western factions. More than that, it is also a testament to the limitations of Russia's hybrid tactics.
Ultimately, the motivation for Russia's hybrid warfare strategy goes deeper than the Euromaidan uprising to reflect Moscow's difficulties in competing with the United States and the West in a direct manner. Even as Russia's standoff with the West has been intensifying for half a decade, Moscow suffers from a number of inherent weaknesses, including a resource-dependent economy that can't keep up with the likes of the United States or China, as well as increasingly pressing demographic challenges at home. As a result, Russia has resorted ever more to a continuously evolving and spreading hybrid strategy to attain its strategic ends. Perhaps more than any other country, Ukraine has showcased both the effectiveness and limitations of this strategy for Russia — and that is unlikely to change, even as Moscow refines its strategy and deploys it much further afield.