Volodymyr Zelensky: Ukraine's wartime president faces uncertain future

The actor-turned-president's term ends on 20 May and new elections will not take place, prompting questions—especially in Russia—about the legitimacy of Zelensky continuing in office

Axel Rangel Garcia

Volodymyr Zelensky: Ukraine's wartime president faces uncertain future

Had it not been for the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Volodymyr Zelensky—the country’s democratically-elected president—may well have found himself leaving office this week with the expiry of his five-year term of office, which officially ends on 20 May. When Zelensky was first elected back in the summer of 2019, when his Servants of the People party won the biggest vote for any single party in Ukrainian history, the prospect of an all-out war with Russia seemed remote.

Although there were occasional skirmishes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces had occupied swathes of territory in 2014, Zelensky’s main priority was to reinvigorate the peace talks based on the Minsk agreement that was aimed at ending hostilities.

Prior to entering politics, Zelensky was regarded as a political novice. He was best known for starring in a satirical television series, Servant of the People, in which his character accidentally became the Ukrainian president. Petro Poroshenko, the former president who was roundly defeated in the 2019 election, warned voters his replacement was too inexperienced to stand up to Russia effectively.

Zelensky, who was just 41 when he was elected president, responded by declaring he would "reboot" peace talks with the separatists fighting Ukrainian forces and volunteers in the east.

"I think that we will have personnel changes. In any case, we will continue in the direction of the Minsk (peace) talks and head towards concluding a ceasefire," he said. However, any hope Zelensky still entertained of finding a peaceful resolution to the east Ukraine question ended dramatically after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

'Legitimate' questions

Consequently, Ukraine’s normal political processes, such as elections, have been put on hold—ostensibly to concentrate all its resources on winning the war. That means that elections to elect a new Ukrainian leader will not take place, prompting questions—especially in Russia—about the legitimacy of Zelensky continuing in office. In February this year, Zelensky accused the Kremlin of paying for a campaign that claims his presidency will no longer be legitimate as of this month.

Only weeks before, Putin himself secured a third full decade of rule in Russia, winning the stage-managed election by an overwhelming majority in a result that was a foregone conclusion, Russia is promoting the argument that the powers of Ukraine’s incumbent president will expire under the Constitution on 20 May and there is no legitimate way of extending them.

Tass, the Russian news agency, has quoted a member of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament), Alexander Dubinsky, currently held in a pre-trial detention centre accused of state treason, who said: “The powers of the President of Ukraine expire on the night of 20-21 May 2024 and cannot be extended, while those of the Verkhovna Rada can. After 20 May, the Rada will be legitimate, but the president will be not,” reported Tass.

Elections to elect a new Ukrainian leader will not take place, prompting questions—especially in Russia—about the legitimacy of Zelensky continuing in office.

Dubinsky argues that the only situation in which the president can continue to fulfil his duties after the expiration of his term is the period until the president-elect takes office. But this requires that elections be held and a new president be elected. In the meantime—under martial law, which has once again been extended in Ukraine—elections are impossible.

During a press conference following the Ukraine Year 2024 conference in February, President Zelensky said: "I see this as a treacherous position with regard to Ukraine. It's a real campaign, and there is evidence to confirm this: it's a campaign by the Russian Federation. I know that some US journalists also have access to this evidence. These documents even specify the amounts of money certain institutions have paid or will be paid to raise this issue. I won't say (who), but I've seen them."

Parliamentary elections were supposed to be held in Ukraine in October last year, but they became impossible to hold because martial law was imposed and has been repeatedly extended since February 2022. According to the Constitution, the presidential election in Ukraine should have been held in March this year, and many analysts began to speculate about their possible abolition or ways of holding them under the current conditions.

Politicians in Ukraine representing both the government and opposition sides have both expressed doubt over the viability of holding an election in 2024, citing concerns over security and displaced voters. Russia controls nearly a fifth of Ukraine's territory, and millions of Ukrainians have fled the country. Among the other challenges are damaged infrastructure, outdated voter registry, restricted rights under martial law and the lack of funds.

The Ukrainian constitution stipulates that a president's term concludes only when a successor is sworn in, indicating that Zelensky can continue to serve as president even after the expiration of the original five-year term to which he was elected. When he was first elected in 2019, Zelensky's anti-corruption platform won him widespread support, and his significant online following translated into a solid electoral base.


Born to Jewish parents in the industrial metropolis of Kryvyi Rih in southern Ukraine, he grew up as a native Russian speaker, but he also acquired fluency in both Ukrainian and English. In 1995, he entered the Kryvyi Rih Economic Institute, the local campus of Kyiv National Economic University, and in 2000, he graduated with a law degree.

Although Zelensky was licensed to practise law while still a student, he became active in theatre, which would become his primary focus until 2014. Then, with the Ukrainian economy stalled and incumbent president Poroshenko's approval rating approaching single digits, more than three dozen candidates entered the race, and Zelensky emerged as one of the front-runners virtually from the moment he declared his candidacy.

Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine with 73% of the vote. Within days, the president-elect faced his first foreign policy challenge when Putin announced his decision to offer Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in separatist-controlled areas of war-torn eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky makes the V for victory sign during a presidential election debate with the incumbent Ukrainian president at Kyiv's Olympic Stadium on April 19, 2019.

The Russian-backed hybrid war there was already entering its fifth year, with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians displaced by the conflict. Zelensky ridiculed the offer, responding with a Facebook post that extended Ukrainian citizenship to Russians and others "who suffer from authoritarian or corrupt regimes."

In late 2021, Russia began a massive buildup of troops and ammunition along its border with Ukraine. Additional Russian forces were sent to Belarus—ostensibly for joint exercises with that country's military—and a sizable Russian naval flotilla was assembled in the Black Sea. Western intelligence agencies stated that the moves were a clear precursor to an invasion, but Putin denied any such intent. Western leaders carried on negotiations with both Putin and Zelensky, but Russia's military preparations continued.

Putin launches war

On 21 February 2022, Putin announced that he would recognise the independence of the self-proclaimed People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and dispatch "peacekeepers" to both regions. Western leaders responded by applying a new round of sanctions, and in the early morning hours of 24 February, Zelensky delivered a televised plea for peace directly to the Russian people. Shortly after that, Putin announced the beginning of a "special military operation," and Russian cruise missiles began to target Ukraine.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine drew condemnation from leaders around the world. Russian troops and armoured vehicles entered Ukraine from Russia, Russian-occupied Crimea, and Belarus, and scores of military personnel and civilians were killed on the first day of fighting. As world leaders announced increasingly tough sanctions against Russia, Zelensky tried to rally support from abroad, warning that a "new Iron Curtain was descending on Europe.

According to a survey released in February this year by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), almost 70% of Ukrainians think that Zelensky should remain in office for the duration of martial law and that elections should be postponed until it is lifted. Polling has consistently found that a majority of Ukrainians believe elections should only be held after the war is over.

According to the KIIS poll, only 15% of respondents believe a presidential election should go forward. The figure included 4% who thought martial law should be temporarily suspended and another 11% who believed that the rules of martial law should be amended to allow for elections. An additional 10% thought that Zelensky's presidential authority should be transferred to the speaker of Ukraine's parliament, Ruslan Stefanchuk after Zelensky's term expires. Under such a scenario, Stefanchuk would exercise presidential power until a new election is held.

Zelensky would have taken heart from a surprise visit by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last week. Secretary Blinken sought to reassure Ukrainians with a direct-to-camera message: "You are not alone. We are with you today, and we will stay by your side", amid a fresh Russian offensive, which he said had been aided by North Korea, Iran and China.

Secretary Blinken described Ukraine's recent mobilisation reforms as "a difficult decision but a necessary one" and praised those who have stepped up to serve their country. Crediting their ability to deny Putin "his goal of erasing Ukraine from the map," he said the US would continue to stave off that possibility, including by "bringing Ukraine closer to and then into NATO."

He also vowed to "make Russia pay for Ukraine's recovery and reconstruction", in part by seizing and immobilising Russia's overseas assets. Blinken concluded by hailing Ukraine for "moving forward" while its neighbour was "going back in time", adding that Putin had underestimated their fierce spirit and would, as a result, ultimately fail.

Zelensky surely welcomes these affirmations as he continues his presidency. But he will also be well aware that his ability to continue relying on US support for his war effort to defeat Russia will depend to a large extent on the outcome of November's American presidential election.

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