KYIV—Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected president of Ukraine by a landslide on Sunday, is probably the least prepared individual to head a democracy in world history.
Until this weekend, his main experience in politics was playing a schoolteacher who becomes the president in a satirical television program. He ran with no party affiliation. Until two days before voting began, he had no clear team of expert advisers—not even on foreign policy and national security, the president’s key constitutional responsibilities. And, remarkably, Ukraine’s nearly four-month long election campaign did little to provide answers as to who Zelensky is and what he truly thinks.
This is because Zelensky ran the world’s first successful presidential campaign that was entirely virtual. He not only traded on the image of a complete outsider, he also did no face-to-face campaigning, made no speeches, held no rallies, eschewed travel across the country, gave no press conferences, avoided in-depth interviews with independent journalists and, until the last day of campaigning, did not debate.
And now this virtual candidate is about to become the president of a country at the epicenter of a hybrid war that could easily ignite into a major European conflict.
Before he ran for office, Zelensky was omnipresent on Ukraine’s most popular TV network, 1+1, filling hours of weekly programming with his variety shows, comedy talent contests and his series about an outsider elected president, “Servant of the People.” When he announced his candidacy in a New Years’ 2019 video greeting, after opinion polls showed him to be among the favorites, many assumed he would run a typical celebrity campaign—full of public appearances and stump speeches.
He didn’t. Unlike President Donald Trump, who staged regular rallies and appeared in Town Halls and in televised debates, Zelensky avoided human contact with his electorate. He addressed voters through short YouTube and Instagram posts and appearances on TV. (One of his online videos, calling for a debate he postponed until the last minute, garnered 14 million views.) Instead of preparing for the presidency and holding substantive public meetings, he traveled with his comedy troupe and performed in variety shows. He also spent much of the first month of the campaign producing the next three episodes of his TV series.
After winning a first-round election that required a runoff—Zelensky played table tennis at his campaign headquarters with a reporter, made a vague one minute statement laced with platitudes and followed by just three minutes of Q and A. As the election continued, a 15 minute interview on his home TV station, and a softball interview of his wife and him at home, were the most detailed press scrutiny he faced.
Zelensky’s virtual-first strategy allowed him to run his campaign on general themes and vague promises and to avoid issuing detailed positions on policy issues. His political messaging focused on discontent with the way things are—and lambasting Ukraine’s business and political elites for making them that way. Some voters even appear to have conflated him with his TV persona, a high-school teacher whose viral Youtube rant against corruption and government incompetence gets him elected Ukraine’s president.
Those searching for detailed policy positions searched in vain. While he solicited advice from voters on a campaign website, his platform published online contains only a few anodyne sentences each on key issues of security, the economy, health care, education and the fight against corruption. Throughout the campaign, short video blogs showed Zelensky interacting with a range of informal advisers, usually well-regarded reformers or NGO leaders who over the course of three months explained to the public what they thought the candidate might believe. But many had no official status in his campaign until three days before voters went to the polls. His inner circle seems to be mainly made up of longtime colleagues from show business, partners in his comedy troupe, and a handful of lawyers linked to his main backer, the Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky, who is accused by the Ukrainian government with defrauding Ukraine’s banking system of $5.6 billion.
When outsider celebrities, sports heroes and entertainers typically run for office, they usually try to allay fear about their inexperience by showing a command of the issues. Zelensky did the exact opposite. While trading on his celebrity, he also embraced his inexperience, suggesting this meant he was open to fundamentally new approaches. He called on the public to help him devise his platform virtually and, scarily, preached plebiscitary direct democracy.
In many ways, Zelensky’s campaign eerily resembled an episode from the Netflix Series Black Mirror-entitled “The Waldo Moment”—in which an animated blue bear satirizes and degrades politicians competing in a British by-election, and eventually joins them in the quest for office, campaigning semi-virtually from a video display on a truck that interacts with voters on the hustings.
The big difference is that the bear came in second. Zelensky won. In the end, the Ukrainian public proved so tired of the status quo, characterized by slow growth, widespread poverty and significant corruption, that the voters of a country partly under Russian occupation and subject to regular military attacks rejected an experienced incumbent—President Petro Poroshenko, who had rebuilt Ukraine’s military and competently marshalled international aid and diplomatic support—and took a chance on a political novice. Plus, Zelensky’s vague and laconic platform meant that he was able to appeal to both the Ukrainian-speaking West and Center and the to the Russophone East and South, to rural and urban voters, and rich and poor, alike.
But now, Zelensky, who has since launched a new political party named after his TV program, must deal with a whole new challenge: Governing. His base of support is likely to narrow as soon as he starts making clear policy choices. And while he captured nearly three-quarters of all votes in the presidential runoff, he had the backing of only 30 percent of voters in round one, the lowest level of support for a first round leader in any of Ukraine’s seven presidential contests. He is unlikely to create a working majority in Ukraine’s parliament. That leaves him the option of trying to force a snap election this summer or waiting until late October, when the current legislature’s mandate expires. Meanwhile, his lack of knowledge about personnel and policy could lead to early missteps, especially in the spheres of defense, national security and foreign policy.
All this makes Zelenky’s assumption of power full of potential peril. The entire architecture of Europe’s defense and security rests on a stable Ukraine. An unsteady and inexperienced leader in Ukraine could tempt Russia to escalate its military actions in a bid to restore Ukraine to its sphere of influence or control.
A Ukraine back in Russia’s sphere of influence would give new impetus to Russia’s global ambitions, would enhance the Kremlin’s capacity to project power regionally, and interfere in and further disrupt the politics of the U.S. and the West. As Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote, “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”
That said, there is also huge potential upside in Zelensky’s election. A novice politician, especially one willing to shed some of his oligarch patrons, can be more open to implementing fundamental reforms that can accelerate Ukraine’s transition into a transparent and stable market economy. A leader from outside the existing political system might be able, with some assistance, to assemble a capable team of reformers.
Given this, as well as the ongoing military threat from Russia and Putin’s likely interest in testing Zelensky’s mettle early in his tenure, the U.S. and the West must do all they can to help an unprepared politician rapidly transform rapidly into a competent and self-assured commander-in-chief. U.S. policymakers and their European colleagues should offer to Zelensky and his nascent team a program of technical assistance that could accelerate their learning curve and enable them to govern competently and intelligently.
Ukraine’s wide array of think tanks and globally networked reformers should also join this effort. And the West should encourage the experienced hands present in Ukraine’s government—which include reformist ministers running finance, transportation, education and health care, as well as competent defense and foreign ministers—to cooperate constructively with the new president, at least until parliamentary elections scheduled for late October yield a new political configuration.
By taking these steps, the U.S. and the West can help ensure that the choice Ukrainian voters have taken in electing an ambitious but untested political newcomer pays off, and doesn’t plunge Europe into an accelerating conflict with Russia.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine