Election officials begin counting ballots on Sunday at a polling station in Kiev, Ukraine. (Sergei Grits/AP)
Columnist

The big takeaway from Sunday’s presidential election in Ukraine was the fact that a comic who had played the Ukrainian president on a television program led the first round’s voting. The bigger and more important takeaway should be the reappearance of the ethnic voting divisions that caused the country’s division, as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s support of anti-government separatists.

Ukraine’s independence after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union was the first time the country had been free in centuries. Most of the country had fallen under Russian sway since the second half of the 18th century, and the eastern and southern parts of the country became home to many Russian migrants. The westernmost parts of Ukraine, on the other hand, did not receive as many Russians and some areas were controlled by Poland or Austria until the early 20th century. These divergent historical circumstances would soon emerge as crucial in Ukrainian politics.

Ethnic and regional voting became the most important factors in Ukrainian politics by the turn of this century. The regions with the highest portions of ethnic Russians and native Russian speakers, generally in the east and south, voted overwhelmingly for candidates and parties that favored closer ties with Russia. Those regions populated largely by native Ukrainians voted for candidates and parties that favored closer ties to the European Union and membership in NATO.

The two regions were roughly balanced, leading to unstable politics. When pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych canceled an initiative to enter the European Union in 2013, citing Russian pressure, and instead sought closer economic ties with Russia, pro-E.U. activists in Ukraine’s very pro-E.U. capital of Kiev began protesting near the central Maidan square. These protests, and Yanukovych’s use of violence to suppress them, eventually led to what is known as the Maidan revolution and Yanukovych’s overthrow. This, in turn, directly led to Russian annexation of the predominantly Russian-settled region of Crimea and the beginning of the Russia-backed separatist war in the two regions of eastern Ukraine most settled by Russians — Donetsk and Luhansk.

These patterns changed dramatically in the 2014 presidential election, held after Yanukovych’s ouster, and after the Crimean and separatist actions occurred. Petro Poroshenko finished first in every region of the country save one. He ran much better in the country’s pro-E.U. west, but he still finished first even in the more Russian-favorable east. It looked as though Ukraine’s deadly divisions might be behind it.

That is apparently not the case, based on the election this weekend. While the candidate who finished first, Volodymyr Zelensky, has run on a pro-E.U., pro-NATO platform, his support is based predominantly in the Russian-speaking east and south. With the exception of the heavily Russian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which supported an openly pro-Russian candidate, Zelensky’s support declines as one moves further west and north. The regions that traditionally give pro-E.U. candidates the largest margins — Lviv and the surrounding areas — gave Zelensky and the pro-Russian candidate their lowest percentages in the country.

This is not surprising in one sense. Despite his platform, Zelensky was clearly the most pro-Russian of all the significant candidates. He was opposed to Poroshenko’s ban on Russian cultural programs and artists following the 2014 war. Zelensky performed exclusively in the Russian language, not Ukrainian, until 2018. And while he supported the Maidan revolution and donated money to the Ukrainian army during the 2014 war, he also said he would negotiate an end to the separatist conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin and acknowledged that Crimea will remain lost so long as Putin controlled Russia. Neither stance is likely to appeal to hardcore Ukrainian nationalists.

Poroshenko is already signaling that he plans to wrap the Russian flag around Zelensky’s neck in the second round. A close look at the returns suggests it might work, too. Zelensky received 30 percent and beat Poroshenko by nearly 15 percentage points in the first round, but candidates who also did well among Russian speakers received only another 16 percent of the vote. Most of the remainder of the vote was split among Ukrainian nationalists whose vote came mainly from the pro-E.U. west and north. If Poroshenko can win the bulk of their votes, and it seems that is what his campaign aims to do, he could still prevail.

Even if Zelensky wins, he faces a daunting task: His Russian-speaking voters will want peace with Russia, while his Ukrainian-speaking opponents will not want to permanently cede Ukrainian territory, which is likely the only way peace with Russia can be obtained. His opponents will want Ukraine to join the E.U., which Putin adamantly opposes. Putin will also likely oppose Ukraine’s potential entry into NATO. Even the most talented politician in the world would find it difficult to implement his agenda; Zelensky has no political experience.

The sad reality is that Ukraine is really two nations trapped inside one country, bordering a regional power that badly wants one of those nations to prevail. Many in the West want to believe that Ukraine has abandoned its old ways and is now united in its desire to free itself from Russia’s grasp. The first round’s vote suggests that might not be the case and, at best, it appears the Russian-Ukrainian view of Ukrainian nationalism still differs greatly from the view prevalent in the country’s west and north. Whichever candidate ultimately wins continues to face an extremely difficult task in uniting an inherently fractured country.

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