You Say You Want a Revolution? For Once, Most Ukrainians Don't | Opinion

Five years after Ukraine's last revolution—2014's Euro-Maidan—the country is ripe for another one. But can such an uprising be legitimate if most Ukrainians oppose it? The 2019 presidential elections and the July 21st parliamentary polls suggest they might. After 15 years and two such Maidans, it is more than a theoretical question. When Ukraine elected new president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul noted, "Let's hope there is not a third Maidan. Enough revolutions already!"

Aggregate polling gives Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party a potential full majority in the next parliament. Critics say some of the new president's first appointments show little difference between his party and pro-Russian politicians in second place, casting Zelenskiy as Moscow's stooge. Activists say his celebrity career offers ample evidence—from anti-Ukrainian humor, to his hit TV show's dramatization of a neo-Nazi coup shattering Ukraine into successor states along regional and ethnic lines.

Zelenskiy's 75 percent victory was a result of protest voting to unseat incumbent Petro Poroshenko. It has also catalyzed a new movement of veterans and volunteers protesting what they deem pro-Russian revanche: the return of Moscow sympathizers, rumored repeal of language and identity laws, and implementation of the 2015 Minsk peace agreements – which many equate with surrender.

How can Ukraine prevent pro-Russian politics if voters prefer it? Another revolution, duh.

The 25%

This movement is dubbed "The 25%," after their support for Poroshenko's failed reelection. Backers include allies from his party list: outgoing speaker of parliament Andriy Parubiy and state historian Volodymyr Vyatrovych—controversial nationalists who heroize figures implicated in the Holocaust as freedom fighters for independence from the Soviet Union. Parubiy takes credit for leading other Maidans. He and Vyatrovych are evangelists of "national liberation" and "national revolution" against Russian imperialism. Neither will be in government if Poroshenko's European Solidarity party fails to pass the 5 percent entry cutoff.

Zelenskiy's support will wither, but for now his party leads polls with 50 percent approval. Remnants of exiled ex-president Viktor Yanukovych's regime, rebranded as the Opposition Platform-For Life party, come second at 12 percent. Zelenskiy's first act after taking office was to call snap elections likely to decimate Maidan reformers. Now that high courts have ruled in favor of early elections, the 25% has exhausted all legal means to prevent them within existing frameworks. To buy time and expose Zelenskiy as pro-Russian, they tried to postpone inauguration and persuade the judiciary that early elections were unconstitutional. Both initiatives failed, leaving the 25% no recourse other than the street again.

Despite Zelenskiy's huge mandate, the 25% is positioning to overthrow him—and in so doing fulfill the fascist junta Moscow has long prophesied. Protests rumble with language to incitement, like "Stop Revanche", "Stop Surrender", "Defend Ukraine", "Can't Wait Any Longer", and "Red Lines".

Can a third Maidan succeed?

Ukraine's 25% has done it before. In February 2014, non-state militias used deadly force to prevail over armed riot police and depose Yanukovych without recruiting any power structures to join them. That spring, when Ukraine's depleted Yanukovych-era military failed to stop Russia's subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine, Maidan volunteers did.

Many of those same fighters joined parliament or the armed forces and have benefited from five years of Western aid. Now that Ukraine is on the verge of voting them out, it's naive to assume all will let go easily of what thousands fought and died for.

Following the presidential election, Vyatrovych asserted Zelenskiy lost even if he won because activists will never support him and other Ukrainians don't matter. Parubiy tweeted it smells like burning tires – a vivid reference to an enduring Maidan symbol that from anyone else might just be braggadocio, but he commanded paramilitary units at the last two Maidans, was a driving force behind Yanukovych's exile, and is a lifelong rural militant from the same circles that went on to form far-right groups Azov and Right Sector. His job after the last revolution as acting national security director was formalizing those fighters into the first two battalions of Ukraine's new National Guard.

Red lines

After Zelenskiy's win, civil society organizations backed by the West published a list of red lines that if crossed will "lead to political instability...consequences can be fatal." It seeks to deter Zelenskiy from undoing his predecessor's policies, but he seems undeterred, already criticizing a new language law signed by lame duck Poroshenko and saying Ukraine "must initiate and adopt laws and decisions that consolidate society, not vice versa." Instead of being intimidated by the red lines, he is poised to cross them—implementing the Minsk agreements and rewriting history loom largest.

Patriots believe peace in Donbas as envisioned by Minsk is 5D chess to destroy Ukraine, and resolving that war on any terms other than their own will foment renewed unrest. Ukrainians can tolerate abuse, but demilitarizing and exposing to attack hero cities like Mariupol—where volunteers stopped Russia's 2014 advance —strikes many as a slap in the face or a trap.

Some think Russia wrote Minsk to subvert Ukraine because it cedes all the conditions Ukrainians have been fighting over for five years: Russian language rights, amnesty for separatists, their right to rebrand as local militias, and privileged special status no longer enjoyed by any other region now that similarly autonomous (now annexed) Crimea used this double standard to secede.

Historical revisionism is another red line. Neo-Nazis in Ukraine's second city Kharkiv just hanged effigies of local politicians to protest renaming dissident Petro Grigorenko street back to its Soviet iteration for WWII victor Marshal Zhukov. And naming roads after SS trainer Stepan Bandera or death squad leader Roman Shukhevych has become a nationwide hobby. Bizarrely, only pro-Russians seem to oppose it.

Beyond parliamentary elections

Maidans demonstrate that a revolutionary minority can impose its will upon other Ukrainians. The West can defuse this by praising courts, which are taking steps to cool revolutionism and counter the revanche narrative driving the 25%. Last week, they upheld anti-corruption legislation and ruled that pro-Russians who don't live in Ukraine cannot be candidates for elections.

Moderates mustn't cede the center under threat of street violence to radical militants few in number. Euro-Atlantic allies should platform creative and effective alternatives. One is Spilna Sprava and lawfare, which lobbied courts to arrest Russian assets in Ukraine totaling $3.5b as negotiating leverage.

The West should also explore what compromises Ukraine's centrists will consider. Many acknowledge the vulnerability created by historical revisionism and understand it is reflexive control – an own goal that makes Ukraine look more fascist than Russia ever could. Some even privately admit dispensing with it might be one way to broker peace with Russia.

Elections are becoming a free and fair rejection of Maidans. Activists blame this on lumpen indifference of fellow countrymen who would have re-elected Yanukovych had a Maidan not stopped it. This is anti-democratic, but the 25% counters that anti-Ukrainian voters don't deserve the franchise and must earn it.

If there is a third Maidan, Ukraine's far right will lead it. Debunking Kremlin propaganda about Ukraine overrun by a fascist junta would grow even more difficult. It would also delight Moscow and further destabilize Kyiv – which is the opposite of what the West is supposed to be doing there.

Jonathan Brunson is a political warfare analyst in Washington, DC.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

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