As the undisputed frontrunner throughout most of the Ukrainian presidential election campaign, Yulia Tymoshenko’s recent, precipitous fall from the top of opinion surveys has brought out an increasing desperation in the stretch run of her third and likely final bid to lead Ukraine. As she has essentially campaigned non-stop for the presidency since her 2014 defeat to Petro Poroshenko, Tymoshenko’s slip to third in all pre-election polls has led her to now embrace a disturbing anti-West xenophobia to her campaign rhetoric. Washington officials fear she may put at risk Ukraine’s aid packages from international organizations and support from the West in general, if her undisciplined, populist outbursts continue.
Tymoshenko’s strong support ebbed following her disastrous December 2018 visit to Washington. While once enjoying a double-digit lead, Tymoshenko inexplicably ruffled feathers in the Washington policymaker community during her poorly planned visit. In the span of a few days in America’s capital, Tymoshenko managed to insult the U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine, Ambassador Kurt Volker, questioning his impartiality during the campaign; suggested to U.S. officials, including a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, that the Normandy Four peace talks have failed and it is necessary to expand negotiations to a “Budapest Plus” format, which would include America’s strategic rival, China; and met with one of President Trump’s vociferous Congressional critics, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), now Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. It surprised no one but the tone-deaf Tymoshenko, that White House officials and the U.S. intelligence community rebuffed her entreaties to meet her during her visit.
“Tymoshenko’s hopes for victory ended in Washington,” noted a U.S. lobbyist familiar with her visit. “She relied on the services of her Democrat lobbyist and packed her visit meeting with House members critical of President Trump. She desperately wanted a photo opportunity at the White House, but U.S. intelligence officials, weary of Tymoshenko’s long-standing ties to Moscow, wouldn’t let her anywhere near the president. She had years to establish ties with U.S. intelligence and explain away her Kremlin connections. Instead, she focused on pointless ‘grip-and-grin’ photo opportunities that did little to improve her standing in Washington’s corridors of power.”
Tymoshenko returned to Ukraine, confident that the election was still hers to win. Voters paid scant attention to the campaign around the New Year’s holidays, but slowly, but surely, President Poroshenko chipped away at her lead. Unlike Tymoshenko who spouted populist policies, promising reduced-price gas and a laundry list of other economic policies that she could not deliver upon if elected, President Poroshenko fulfilled promises, including stronger US-Ukraine ties, reforms, autocephaly for Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, and Kyiv’s geopolitical divorce from Moscow.
The New Year led to a growth in popularity for Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s and the previous two-person fight between Poroshenko and Tymoshenko suddenly became a tight, three-candidate race. As Tymoshenko’s lead slowly shrank, a source close to her campaign confirmed she was increasingly becoming unhinged. “The presidency flashed before her eyes,” said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity, “and she realized desperate times called for desperate measures.”
Tymoshenko’s attacks on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had worsened throughout her campaign, including criticism of reforms which led to utility tariff increases as well as hinting that, if elected president, she would renegotiate terms of the IMF’s Standby-By Arrangement (SBA) with Kyiv. After IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde’s Davos meeting with President Poroshenko in late January, after which the Fund’s head stated “I reiterated that the IMF stands ready to continue to support Ukraine, along with other international partners, in reform efforts. I also highlighted that Ukraine should take advantage of the current favorable external environment to accelerate reforms,” Tymoshenko became convinced the West supported Poroshenko’s re-election and was against her. “Her desperation led to her increasing her anti-Western xenophobia,” added the anonymous campaign source.
When history books are written about the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election, February 5 will be known as the day Tymoshenko’s hopes for the presidency collapsed. While known to criticize Western institutions like the IMF and World Bank, Tymoshenko inexplicably attacked Ukraine’s strongest ally, the United States, taking aim at not only the American born, reformist Ukrainian Health Minister Ulana Suprun, but lashing out at Washington as well. In a fit of rage, Tymoshenko stated at a hometown rally in Dnipro, that Suprun was “sent by foreigners” who want to “experiment on Ukrainians.” Sources familiar with the reaction at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv confirm Tymoshenko’s comments disturbed American diplomats, who communicated their concerns to Washington that Tymoshenko was a compromised candidate have all but ended.
Ukrainian voters turned Tymoshenko’s double-digit lead over Poroshenko into a double-digit deficit against the current front-runner, Zelenskiy. All the while, Poroshenko has steadily climbed in the polls to second place. As one U.S.-based Ukraine expert observed, “slow and steady wins the race.” Conservative American media outlet Breitbart wrote “analysts believe Zelenskiy’s front-runner status is fragile, his candidacy largely a vehicle for voters to express their disgust with the system, and Tymoshenko’s voters would likely come home to Poroshenko to defeat the comedian in a runoff election.”
The crude, anti-American xenophobia by Tymoshenko have pushed western policymakers to voice tacit disapproval of Tymoshenko, which they had avoided doing throughout the campaign. After meeting with Tymoshenko on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Lagarde stated “”I highlighted the urgency for Ukraine to safeguard the gains made in restoring macroeconomic stability,” clearly a sign the IMF does not approve of Tymoshenko’s economic policies or populism.
Ambassador Volker, likely angry at Tymoshenko’s atrtacks on him and then Suprun, voiced concern about her populism as well, stating in the Munich Security conference, “We already hear statements that contradict the interests of Ukraine. They may sound nice to the public. For example, that Ukraine does not need the IMF to say what to do. The reality is that Ukraine needs the IMF.” Ambassador Volker also said, “What they are trying to do is attack Poroshenko and weaken Poroshenko” and “They really want to see him removed from power and I think they hope they can make some kind of deal that benefits Russia with the new government because they don’t get it from Poroshenko.”
Tymoshenko’s increasing anti-Western xenophobia is on the one hand not surprising as she has been a ferocious critic of the IMF over the last five years and Batkivshchina have half-heartedly supported only a small number of reforms. This makes Tymoshenko similar to Oleh Lyashko, leader of the Radical Party. It is therefore not surprising that Tymoshenko and Lyashko do not include EU or NMATO membership in their election programme’s.
Facing the shame and notoriety that follows a thrice-failed candidacy for eternity, Washington officials have privately expressed concern that Tymoshenko may ramp up her anti-West attacks next month in an act of desperation.