How Motyl Uncovered Zelensky’s Russophilia

Motyl has profiled himself as a porokhobot…

That is a person, a blogger, a writer, a youtube content creator, who services the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko. Some are allegedly paid by the president for their work. If that is the case with Alexander Motyl, the party maybe coming to an end should Volodymyr Zelensky win the election.

Zelensky has consistently been opposed to the armed uprising of pro-Russian separatists in the East of the country. He called the rebelling people of Donbass “bastards”, and performed for the Ukrainian military in the east. And it seems his actions were not forgotten in the Donbass. The separatists were already heard saying they will not hold talks with Zelensky should he win. More recently, meeting with the press, Zelensky said he would only meet with Putin to thank him for the return of lost territories, and for the financial compensation provided for Russia’s support of Eastern separatists.

I personally do not expect Zelensky to work in Russia’s interests should he get elected. But my assessment apparently isn’t good enough for Motyl. Here I would be inclined to believe Motyl’s support for Poroshenko is genuine, and is based upon the latter’s Russophobic (that is in the sense of rejection of everything Russian, starting from the Russian language, and ending with the Russian gas that Ukraine buys through Slovakia) agenda. In his recent article in Foreign Policy, Motyl attempts to make us believe that supporters of Zelensky are not voting for the real life Zelensky but instead they are voting for Vasyl Holoborod’ko, a fictional character depicted by Zelensky in satirical TV series. And that quite frankly is not his only disinformation Motyl peddles. I quote:

Servant of the People gets a number of things wrong. Most of the characters speak Russian most of the time. In reality, in Ukraine, Ukrainian is spoken publicly at least as often as Russian. The vast majority of Ukrainians who speak out for the Ukrainian language and culture are hardly radical putschists.

The TV series are aimed at the Ukrainian public because any use of the Ukrainian language would simply make watching it difficult for people outside Ukraine (with the exception of Belarus perhaps). This makes the choice of language on screen rather curious and the election hence becomes a sort of a referendum on a whether the Ukrainian public would be OK with a Russian speaking president.

The problem is not with people who speak out for the Ukrainian language. The problem is not with people, who use the Ukrainian language. The problem is with affirmative action policies at the expense of Russian.

Corruption is widespread, but it’s not quite the monster that Holoborodko—and Western journalists—imagines it to be. And rather than chide Ukraine, the West would be delighted if it took off economically and politically. These inaccuracies may be forgiven as campaign hyperbole.

Porokhobotism is about making excuses for widespread corruption in Ukraine.

Unforgivable is the absence from the show of Russia or Russian President Vladimir Putin. In its alternate universe, Crimea and Donbass are not occupied. There is no war. There are no deaths. There is no mention of Russian attempts to quash Ukrainian independence since 1991.

Please, can anyone show me the Russian attempts to quash Ukrainian independence? Even the seizure of Crimea, and support of the armed uprising in the Donbass, does not quite cut it. I just don’t see the RF doing anything about Ukraine’s independence.

This curious absence suggests either that Zelensky, who serves as the show’s executive producer, has no idea how to deal with a very real existential threat to Ukraine or, far worse, that he doesn’t believe that there is one.

The Russian threat is very much an article of faith. You have to believe there is one.

By ignoring all these facts, the show adopts Putin’s narrative—one that he began expounding years ago and then perfected during the Euromaidan revolution. Russia was forced to occupy Crimea and invade southeastern Ukraine, he insists, in order to save the country from the supposedly fascist junta that had ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, threatened the lives of Ukraine’s Russian speakers, and made plans to join the U.S.-led imperialist alliance known as NATO. The show effectively says Russians aren’t to be blamed for any of the country’s problems; blame Ukrainians, it argues, more specifically Ukrainian patriots who think they can rely on the West.

Damn, how did Motyl read all this from the TV series?

Throughout his five years in office, Poroshenko has consistently rejected Putin’s line and striven to make Ukraine a viable nation and state. In large measure, he has succeeded. Ukraine has a strong army that has fought the Russians and their Donbass supporters to a standstill. The country is increasingly integrated into Western institutions and is expanding its ties to the rest of the world. Poroshenko’s administration has adopted a raft of positive political, economic, social, and cultural reforms, and it has effectively left the Russian sphere of influence.

I am always amazed by the ability of Russophobes to read into Putin’s thoughts. But was this ever Putin’s policy? As far as I am concerned, the Kremlin accepted the usurpers of Maidan, including the election of Poroshenko, and continued economic cooperation with the country.

The Bravado about Ukrainian military is far from realistic. I do not dispute that certain sections of the army became more battle hardened, the reality is Ukraine fell nine places in the Global Firepower Index. Actual military experts say Ukraine is becoming weaker. Ukrainian military hasn’t won against Russian separatists, it was the pro-Russian separatists who failed to mobilise enough force that would allow them to wage an offensive war.

There is no reason to believe that Zelensky wouldn’t continue with integrating into Western institutions, the leaving of Russian sphere of influence, and making deals with other countries (all presidents of Ukraine did the latter before him). The same with reforms, whatever those are.

By contrast, if Servant of the People is any guide, Zelensky may well roll back these achievements and effectively bring Ukraine back into the so-called Russian world. Zelensky’s major strength—that he is identified with Holoborodko—is also his major weakness. He has got a few weeks before the next round of voting to make his own mark, but that, too, would be a problem; there is no hiding the fact that he has no experience in politics. Zelensky’s supporters hope that his advisors, especially the self-styled reformers who served under Poroshenko, will make up for his ignorance, but that’s unlikely. Their willingness to renounce Poroshenko when the going got tough bodes ill for their future dedication to Zelensky. Zelensky could end up completely on his own—or completely dependent on oligarch backers. On his own, he’ll fail as a reformer. As a puppet to powerful oligarchs, he would succeed as an anti-reformer. Whatever the outcome, a weak president would be just what Ukraine’s corrupt elite—and Putin—want.

It requires a great degree of dishonesty to claim people like Saakashvili renounced Poroshenko when the going got tough. Saakashvili claims Poroshenko covered for corrupt officials in the Odessa region. Saakashvili is someone who thinks he has unfinished business in Ukraine. There are quite a few individuals out there like Saakashvili. I doubt Zelensky will lack willing allies for whatever his plans might be.

Putin cannot care less about the quality of the Ukrainian president. Bottom line for him is whether that person can be considered Moscow-friendly, something that cannot be said about Zelensky.

By the way, isn’t Poroshenko likewise a representative of Ukraine’s corrupt elite?

Poroshenko is a known quality, which is his own strength and weakness. Many Ukrainians correctly see him as a steady hand who saved Ukraine from the brink of disaster in 2014-2015. Many also correctly see him as someone who has failed to defang the oligarchs and has imposed painful price hikes, mandated by the International Monetary Fund, on a struggling population. Five more years of Poroshenko would probably mean five more years of moderate reform, growing institutionalization and stability, and progressive integration into the West. But Poroshenko could also surprise Ukrainians. He just might worry about his historical legacy enough to conclude that he needs to do something dramatic—like a real crackdown on corruption.

The choice before Ukrainians couldn’t be starker. In 2004, they voted against Yanukovych. The government that followed failed at reform but succeeded in keeping Ukraine alive. In 2010, they voted for Yanukovych. His government ignored reform, promoted a pro-Putin agenda, threatened Ukraine’s existence, and sparked the Euromaidan revolution. In 2014, they voted for Poroshenko, who managed to create a Ukraine that is so free that it can seriously consider electing a make-believe president.

The question is: Will Ukrainians opt for fantasy, or will they decide that the current reality is good enough?

I have yet to hear a good argument why reality under Zelensky should be any different or worse.

4 thoughts on “How Motyl Uncovered Zelensky’s Russophilia

  1. “Please, can anyone show me the Russian attempts to quash Ukrainian independence? Even the seizure of Crimea, and support of the armed uprising in the Donbass, does not quite cut it. I just don’t see the RF doing anything about Ukraine’s independence.”

    Russia did try to get Ukraine to integrate together with it in supranational structures such as the CIS (which Russia hoped would become much more powerful and important than it ever actually became), the Single Economic Space, and the Eurasian Economic Union. While Ukraine would have technically remained independent within these supranational structures, I have no doubt that Russia would have continued to push for deeper and deeper integration with Ukraine in a scenario where Ukraine would have actually joined these supranational structures.


    1. Yes, but countries do not exist in a vacuum and Ukraine willingly joined some of those organisations.


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