23.02 Review

Victory and Defeat: Zaluzhny's resignation makes Volodymyr Zelensky's extension of his presidential term at the end of May 2024 more problematic

By the end of the second year of the war, Ukrainians have not lost their will to win, although they are somewhat more pessimistic than before about the prospects for ending the conflict, as indicated by polls conducted at the beginning of 2024. However, a striking change is taking place in Ukrainian public sentiment around domestic politics. Having secured the resignation of Zaluzhny, Volodymyr Zelensky simultaneously suffered a major political defeat: his approval rating plummeted by 13 percentage points in February compared to December, from 77% to 64%. During the same period, the proportion of respondents believing that things in the country are heading in the wrong direction increased by the same margin. Meanwhile, Zaluzhny's trust rating has even slightly increased and stands at an astronomical 94%. This dramatic shift comes just three months before May 2024, when Zelensky's current presidential term ends. Since holding elections is practically impossible amid an ongoing war, it has been assumed that Zelensky's term would be extended until the end of hostilities. However, the rapid drop in his ratings makes this plan much more problematic. In February 2024, about 70% of respondents supported such a scenario, 15% supported holding new elections, and 10% were in favour of transferring Zelensky's powers to the chairman of the Rada. But Zelensky's position is by no means as strong as it used to be. In the event of complications on the front line and Russian counteroffensive successes amid conditional legitimacy of the extended presidential powers, his position may become quite precarious, especially when urgent and difficult decisions need to be made. In the absence of elections, Zelensky may struggle to handle the situation without relying on Zaluzhny's political capital.

A February poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) shows that on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the full-scale invasion, Ukrainian public opinion maintains a high level of military and patriotic mobilisation. However, Ukrainians' confidence that the country can eventually win the war with Russia has perceptibly declined even compared to December 2023, and is more significantly down from May 2022. The decline in belief in victory can be seen in the decreasing share of those who believe that 'Ukraine will definitely win'. At the beginning of the war, 80% of respondents held this view, dropping to 65% in December 2023 and further to 60% in February 2024.

This trend is also evident in assessments of the most realistic outcome of the war. The majority still shares a maximalist approach, albeit with a slight decrease: the share of those who believe that Ukraine will regain all the territories or even transfer the hostilities to Russia was 71% in May 2022, 68% in December 2023 and 64% in February 2024. Meanwhile, from 6% in 2022 to 15% in December 2023 and 19% in February 2024, the percentage of those confident in Ukraine maintaining its independence and statehood grew from 6% in 2022 to 15% in December 2023 and 19% in February 2024. Despite the declining trend in optimism, Ukrainian public opinion consistently expresses readiness to endure the war and its conditions for ‘as long as necessary’. This response was chosen by 73% of those surveyed in February 2024, the same percentage as in December 2023.

These figures indicate Ukrainians' determination to win despite setbacks in the last six months and a decline in international support. At the same time, failures and fatigue translate into a significant deterioration in assessments of the internal situation. In response to the question 'Are things in Ukraine moving in the wrong or right direction?' a major shift occurred over the last six months, especially in the data gathered by KIIS in February. In October 2023, 29% of those surveyed believed that things were going in the wrong direction and 60% believed that they were going in the right direction; in December, the ratio was 33% to 54%. In the February survey, pessimists outnumbered optimists, 46% compared to 44%, jumping by 13 points.

'In your opinion, are things in Ukraine moving in the wrong or right direction?', 2022-2024, % of those surveyed

The February survey was conducted from 5 to 10 February, i.e. just at the moment when the conflict between President Zelensky and Commander-in-Chief Zaluzhny was resolved by the resignation of the latter. Although the resignation was officially announced on February 8, rumours about it had widely circulated earlier (according to our information, Zelensky informed the commander about his resignation approximately a week before the public announcement). The sharp change in assessments is a reaction to this conflict and the Commander-in-Chief’s resignation.

This becomes evident when examining the dynamics of trust ratings of politicians. Zaluzhny maintains an astronomical trust rating of 94% (compared to 92% in December), while Zelensky's rating plummeted from 77% in December to 64%. This is a 13-point drop, matching the increase in the percentage of those who believe the country is moving in the wrong direction during the same period. More than a third of those surveyed do not trust Zelensky (compared to 22% in December). Compared to May 2022, when the incumbent president's rating was 90%, this dramatic decline appears significant. In the ranking of Ukrainian politicians' ratings, Zelensky is now only in third place. In addition to Zaluzhny, he has also been surpassed by the head of Ukrainian intelligence Kyrylo Budanov (whose approval rating stands at 66%). Currently, in the same trust range as Zelensky is public figure Serhiy Prytula (61%).

'How much do you trust or distrust the following Ukrainian public figures? If you do not know them, say so', 2023-2024, % of those surveyed

Thus, while Zelensky managed to oust Zaluzhny without a public conflict, he effectively lost this duel. Furthermore, the resignation and its consequences have created a kind of deadlock in Ukrainian politics. Zelensky's term expires in May 2024, just three months from now, and such a rapid decline in ratings seriously undermines the technical prolongation of his tenure until the end of the war, which was previously considered the likely option. 

In a February KIIS poll, 69% of respondents expressed support for Zelensky remaining in office until the end of the war. Conversely, 15% supported holding elections, changing the current legal mechanisms for this purpose, and another 10% supported transferring Zelensky's powers to the head of the Rada until new elections could be held. The extension of Zelensky's powers is supported by almost 90% of those who trust him, i.e. 56% of the total number of respondents, plus around 40% of those who do not trust him.

A further drop in his ratings will make extending Zelensky's mandate extremely problematic. The situation is further worsened by his promise during the previous presidential campaign not to run for a second term after the current one. In February, 53% of respondents believed that Zelensky should run again, and in December, it was 59%. The number of those who believed Zelensky should stick to his promise was 43% in February.

All of this threatens to drastically reduce Zelensky's legitimacy in the eyes of the Ukrainian public if his mandate is extended. In the event of complications on the front line and the successes of Russia’s counteroffensive, his position may become quite precarious, especially when urgent and difficult decisions need to be made. In the absence of scheduled elections, Zelensky may struggle to handle the situation without relying on the political capital of Zaluzhny.