Even as Russian forces continue to surround Ukraine’s capital city, the country’s unlikely wartime president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has made it unequivocally clear that he has no plans to flee Kyiv for safer pastures.
Thursday will mark two weeks since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale assault on Ukraine; an attack that has already resulted in thousands of estimated casualties on both sides, millions of refugees, and a flurry of international sanctions.
Since the invasion, reports have suggested that Zelensky declined offers from the US to be evacuated from Kyiv, even after alerting allies to the incursion of “enemy sabotage groups” in the city who see the president and his family as Russia’s “number one target.”
“I stay in the capital, I stay with my people,” Zelensky said during a passionate video address late last month.
In a matter of days, Zelensky — a former comedian and actor turned statesman — has garnered global praise for his stalwart presence and defiant demeanor in the face of increasing danger. The leader gained respect with his own people, as well as international observers, for bucking the US’s reported offer to evacuate him from the city, saying: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
On Monday, Zelensky shared videos of himself recorded at the presidential office in Kyiv, marking his first public appearance there since the invasion began. The 44-year-old leader has remained in the capital city, delivering rousing video speeches and running his country’s military efforts for days from an undisclosed, heavily guarded location near the city’s center.
But despite a series of early-stage Russian failures following the country’s chaotic initial attack, several military analysts told The Guardian this week that the Kremlin is slowly solving its logistical issues and could be ready to stage a succesfull assault on Kyiv in the coming days.
Such recent military developments in conjunction with Russia’s clear intent to replace the current Ukrainian government with a Moscow-loyal, puppet regime has forced the country and its western allies to consider an uncomfortable question: What happens to Ukraine’s government, its war efforts, and the country itself if Zelensky is captured or killed?
Ukraine’s constitution offers answers and more confusion
Under the country’s constitution, the speaker, or chairperson, of Ukraine’s Parliament, known as Verkhovna Rada, is next in line to succeed the president. That role is currently filled by Ruslan Stefanchuk, a former top aide to Zelensky who has been a pro-Western advocate.
Stefanchuk has remained a visible public presence amid Russia’s invasion, advocating for more international assistance and standing by Zelensky last week as the leaders signed Ukraine’s official application for membership in the European Union.
During a video meeting last week, Stefanchuk addressed the European Union directly, saying the “best support to the people of Ukraine in its darkest hours will be the real recognition of our European aspiration. Give us the membership of the European Union.”
US and European officials told The New York Times this weekend that Stefanchuk and other possible Ukrainian successors are expected to continue opposing Russia’s war.
Western officials have also reportedly urged Ukrainian officials to relocate Stefanchuk from Kyiv to a safer location as a precaution — advice that Ukrainian officials have resisted, according to The Times. A source briefed on the conversations told the outlet that US officials are discouraging senior Ukrainian leaders in the line of succession from remaining in the same place for too long.
The anonymous sources told the newspaper that despite some resistance, Ukrainian officials have made it clear they understand the importance of a clearly-defined, legal succession plan.
But after Stefanchuk, it is unclear in the country’s constitution as to who comes next. The document establishes the positions of first deputy and deputy chairperson tasked with succeeding the parliament speaker, but they are not explicitly listed in line for the presidency.
Meanwhile, when both Zelensky and Stefanchuk fell ill with COVID-19 in 2020, Ukrainian legal scholars posited that Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal would be on deck to take over, according to The Times.
In an opinion essay for The Hill last month, Khrystyna Holynska, a Ukrainian researcher at the nonprofit the RAND Corporation, and William Courtney, a senior fellow at the nonprofit, suggested that the country’s parliament would be wise to take steps to quickly validate a longer line of succession beyond Stefanchuk.
The US and European allies have already begun logistical discussions about Ukraine’s line of succession
On Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Ukrainian officials have made plans to maintain the government should Zelensky be killed.
“The Ukrainians have plans in place that I’m not going to talk about or get into any details on to make sure that there is what we would call ‘continuity of government’ one way or another,” Blinken said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Blinken’s comments came one day after The New York Times reported that Ukraine’s western allies have discussed how to ensure a continuing Ukrainian government.
The reported conversations are particularly timely, as the London-based newspaper The Times reported last week that Zelensky survived at least three assassination attempts in a matter of days. According to the outlet, two separate outfits — Kremlin-backed mercenaries and Chechen special forces — were thwarted by anti-war agents within Russia’s Federal Security Service.
Zelensky’s death would deal a major blow to Ukraine’s war efforts. His frequent, resolute speeches and public online presence have been essential factors in the ongoing defiant response to Russia’s attack from the Ukrainian military and people.
Likewise, the fall of Kyiv or the dissolution of the current Ukrainian government with no clear succession in place, would be similarly disastrous. While the US and European allies are unlikely to ever acknowledge a Russian-imposed puppet government in the country, a leaderless Ukraine would make ongoing international assistance much more challenging.
A legally-validated Ukrainian leader — even one operating outside of Kyiv or in exile outside the country — would also help fend off any Moscow-backed leaders gaining legitimacy, Western officials told The New York Times.