September 24, 2021

A forceful response


This has been an unusually busy and eventful week for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.  Having visited the United States a few weeks earlier, he began his week by flying back to the United States to address the 76th United Nations General Assembly on September 22, where he pleaded with world leaders to do more to help end Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Mr. Zelenskyy’s speech to the U.N. came on the same day that an assassin or assassins fired a volley of at least 18 bullets from the woods along a road in Kyiv Oblast at a black, four-door Audi sedan carrying the president’s top aide, Serhiy Shefir, and a driver. The unidentified driver was shot three times and hospitalized in critical condition while Mr. Shefir was not harmed.

Addressing the incident during his U.N. speech, Mr. Zelenskyy said “greeting me with shots from the forest at my friend’s car is a weakness. But the response will be forceful.”

Back in Kyiv, Internal Affairs Minister Denys Monastyrskiy also talked with journalists about the assassination attempt.

“The aim of this crime was not to simply intimidate, but to assassinate the Ukrainian president’s top aide. … I would like to stress that the presidential team of Ukraine cannot be intimidated. All of the initiated reforms, including the fight against organized crime, will be continued,” Mr. Monastyrskiy said, referring to one proposed motive for the crime, which was that the attack was meant to dissuade Mr. Zelenskyy’s team from implementing reforms that would diminish the power of Ukraine’s corrupt oligarchs.

And it seems that, in fact, Mr. Zelenskyy was emboldened to push for those reforms. The day after the attack, the Ukrainian president stood in the Verkhovna Rada and watched as lawmakers approved a draft bill meant to limit the influence of oligarchs in the country.  Known as “the oligarch law,” the bill was adopted by the Verkhovna Rada on September 23 after a second and final reading of the proposed legislation.

While the draft legislation must still be signed by Mr. Zelenskyy before it becomes law, the proposed bill would define who is an oligarch, it would create a register of people classified as such, and it would place limitations on their ability to influence Ukrainian politics.

Tackling the issues of corruption and Ukraine’s oligarchs is no small challenge for Mr. Zelenskyy, and he must do so while facing the very real threat of continued Russian aggression against his country.  In short, he faces incredible threats from both within his own country and from outside of it.

Time will tell whether Mr. Zelenskyy is truly intent on rooting out corruption in Ukraine, but the Ukrainian president can begin by signing “the oligarch law” and continuing to fight the country’s oligarchs.  Doing so would demonstrate that Ukraine will not be intimidated by acts of “weakness,” as the president put it, and efforts to intimidate the country’s reformers will be met with a “forceful” response.