KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a political novice embarking on an unlikely run for Ukraine's presidency, vowed to reach out to Russian-backed rebels in the east fighting Ukrainian forces and take steps toward a solution. to the conflict. Guarantees contributed to his landslide victory in 2019.
But after two and a half years in office, Zelenskyy is seeing his once-tremendous support unravel as Ukraine stands on the brink of a Russian invasion that many fear would take not only the rebellious regions but potentially the rest of the country.
To make matters worse, the incumbent, whom Zelenskyy defeated in 2019, has boldly returned to the country to face treason charges and stir up opposition against him. Meanwhile, analysts believe that Moscow is trying to bolster support for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine and that the build-up of Russian forces near Ukraine's border is partly aimed at destabilizing the country's politics.
British intelligence claimed last month that Russia is seeking to topple Zelenskyy's government and replace it with the leader of a small party that opposes Ukraine's ambitions to join NATO and the European Union.
Zelenskyy tried to calm the political turmoil on Sunday by downplaying US warnings of the imminent possibility of a Russian invasion.
"We understand all the risks," Zelenskyy said, adding that if anyone "has information about a 100% safe invasion from the 16th onwards," he should come forward.
The maneuvering and dismay among ordinary Ukrainians pose a significant challenge to a country where democracy has been chaotic for decades. In the past 20 years, Ukraine has seen two major uprisings: one that forced a repeat of a rigged presidential election, and the bloody mass protests that led the pro-Kremlin president to flee the country in 2014. Fistfights broke out in parliament. Political alliances often change and parties transform into new entities.
"The biggest risk to Ukraine and the biggest risk to the sovereignty of our state... is destabilization within our state," Zelenskyy said last month.
But the Ukrainians have little confidence that Zelenskyy can guarantee that stability. According to a January poll by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, only 30% of the country's population want Zelenskyy to run for a second term, and even fewer, 23%, would vote for him.
The ongoing conflict in the rogue east and the prospect of a full-fledged war are not the only factors behind declining support for him.
"Zelenskyy promised to end the war and defeat corruption, but that didn't happen," said Anatoly Rudenko, a 48-year-old driver in Kiev. "Prices are rising, corruption has not disappeared and we are beginning to live even poorer."
"The miracle did not happen. The situation is only getting worse," said Tatyana Shmeleva, a 54-year-old economist.
Zelenskyy first made his mark in Ukraine as a comedic actor, playing a TV professor who accidentally becomes president after criticizing corruption. He made a similar mistake as president, according to one analyst.