A woman stands in front of pre-election posters of opposition politician Yulia Tymoshenko and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 20, 2019.
A woman stands in front of pre-election posters of opposition politician Yulia Tymoshenko and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 20, 2019.

The Kremlin had hoped that by fomenting a separatist insurgency in east Ukraine’s Donbas region, Ukraine could be snapped back into the Russian orbit, but the strategy appears to have backfired, say analysts.

The debate over whether Ukraine should look west and align with the European Union or east towards Moscow appears to be over — at least for now.

FILE - Former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymos
FILE - Former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko speaks during a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 22, 2019.

This month’s presidential election appears to many as another major stage in Ukraine’s journey to break free of Russia and carve out an independent future for itself free of constraints imposed by the Kremlin.

It is the first, they say, since the Soviet era that has not been dominated by debate about whether Ukraine’s best prospects rest with the West or Russia. Being labeled Russia-friendly is a liability for any candidate in an election that’s featuring 43 hopefuls.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, center, PM Volodymyr Groysman, right, and parliament speaker Andriy Parubiy are seen with the newly signed Constitutional amendment on pursuing EU and NATO membership, in Kyiv, Feb. 19, 2019.
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And in his bid to secure re-election, incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, who is trailing according to opinion polls in third place, has not been shy to label his two main rivals: popular TV comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the upstart frontrunner, and veteran politician Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister now campaigning as a recast Ukrainian nationalist, as “agents of the Kremlin.”

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Pro-Moscow is out

The top openly pro-Russian candidate, Yuriy Boyko, a former deputy prime minister and ally of ousted authoritarian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was driven from office by the popular Maidan uprising in 2014, is languishing in fourth place.

FILE - Ukrainian Minister for Fuel and Energy Yuri
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In the opinion polls he is stuck at around 10 percent of the vote. And there are few signs he will be able to break out from his electoral stronghold of the south-east and improve his position before polling in the first round of voting on Mar. 31.

“He has Russian President Vladimir Putin to thank for that,” says Tetiana Popova, media expert and former deputy minister for information policy. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its violent occupation of the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, has in effect deprived Boyko of a huge pool of pro-Russian voters.

Voters in the Donbas and the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea traditionally back candidates who promote close ties to Russia, but in this election they have all but been disenfranchised inadvertently by Putin. They face steep obstacles if they want to cast a ballot in the presidential race, having either to go to consulates overseas or travel to territory controlled by the Ukrainian government.

“Losing pro-Russian voters in Crimea and Donbas means the electorate has become even more pro-Europe — you can see it in the ratings,” says Popova.

FILE - Former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych
FILE - Former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych gestures as he speaks at a news conference in Moscow, Russia, March 2, 2018.

And Russia’s intervention in the east, a reaction to the pro-Moscow Yanukovych’s ouster and part of a strategy, say Western diplomats, aimed at disrupting Ukraine and exerting pressure on it, is deeply angering Ukrainians. An estimated 13,000 people have died in the Donbas conflict. As a result, two-thirds of Ukrainians view Russia as an “aggressor country,” fueling pro-West sentiment and public support for the country to join NATO.

“Russia's intervention in the east, where pro-Moscow separatists enjoy Russia’s full support, has backfired — it is just making Ukrainians more pro-Western,” says a U.S. diplomat. “It isn’t for nothing that people here say, ‘Putin may have got Crimea for a while, but he has lost Ukraine,’” he adds.

Debate not over, really

But some warn Russia should not be written out of the picture yet, noting that Ukraine has switched between East and West and back again before.

Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, Ukrainian commentator Konstantin Skorkin noted that while “for the first time since Ukraine’s independence, national elections will not feature a powerful, pro-Russian force capable of winning,” the Kremlin will likely continue to play a “long game” to try to snap Ukraine back into the Russian orbit.

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Elections later this year for the Verkhovna Rada, or parliament, could well be seized on by the Kremlin as “an opportunity to change the political course in Kyiv,” he fears. Viktor Medvedchuk, a well-known pro-Russian politician closely associated with Putin, has already announced plans to create a pro-Russia political coalition.

And the “Kremlin will likely try to enact its will by manipulating information and fomenting propaganda narratives that stoke division within Ukrainian society,” Skorkin cautions.

Some say that’s already happening.

Russian influence

There are fears that Russian special services with the help of local proxies are preparing to spread false exit-poll data to set the grounds for the Kremlin to claim the results are fake and the election illegitimate.

And Poroshenko has accused Russia of launching cyberattacks against Ukraine’s Central Election Commission. And Ukraine's State Security Service, SBU, say cyber-hackers have been targeting campaign staff’s personal computers.

On Thursday, SBU deputy head Viktor Kononenko told reporters a “group of Russian citizens and Ukrainian collaborators” had used financial bribes to set up a network of people ready to vote for a certain candidate and to influence public opinion. He did not indicate which candidate.

Adrian Karatnycky, an analyst at the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank, has raised the possibility the Kremlin “may have had a hand in the doctoring of data” for an explosive media expose last week implicating the son of a Poroshenko associate in the embezzlement of millions of dollars from state defense enterprises.

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The scheme, involving the smuggling of used parts from Russia and then the selling of them to Ukrainian defense companies at inflated prices, has been seized on by Poroshenko’s challengers.

Poroshenko has not been directly implicated in any accusations of wrongdoing, and his aides point out that the expose was based on leaked documents of an ongoing probe into the scheme by the government, an illustration, they say, of the incumbent’s commitment to fighting corruption.

“Whatever the ultimate truth of the allegations [and even the journalists say only that the evidence is ‘most likely’ true] voters should be skeptical until the facts have been ascertained,” says Karatnycky. “Given Putin’s aim to destroy any Ukrainian President who defies him, a Russian intelligence hand in this cannot be excluded.”

The fallout from the expose appears to be helping the upstart Zelenskiy.

Poroshenko is widely seen as the Kremlin’s least preferred candidate. He has pushed reforms to help Ukraine integrate with Europe and has responded robustly to Russian intervention in the east, say analysts.

Zelenskiy, who’s turned the race upside down by capitalizing on economic hardship and public fatigue with falling living standards, has promised to engage with the Kremlin to end the conflict in the Donbas. Poroshenko supporters say Zelenskiy is ill-equipped and too inexperienced to deal with the wily Putin.