What Happens In Ukraine If Volodymyr Zelensky Dies In Office?

Even as Ukraine enters its 18th month of war against Russia, the nation not only has to contend with aggressors from without, but traitors from within. Sites like ABC News recently revealed an alleged plot within Ukraine to hand over Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's location to Russian forces. Per law enforcement officials, an unnamed woman was apprehended "red-handed" giving over information to Russian personnel regarding Zelensky's itinerary for a trip to Mykolaiv, Ukraine. By all accounts, the Russian military intended to home in on Zelensky's location not to snipe him, poison him, or engage in any sort of subtle assassination, but to conduct a full-blown airstrike on his location. 

While Ukrainian authorities foiled this particular presidential assassination attempt, the plot begs the very real, very terrifying question: What if Russia succeeded? What contingencies are in place to maintain Ukrainian leadership and a peaceful succession of power? Folks have been asking this question ever since Russia initially invaded. After all, Zelensky refused from the get-go to be evacuated from Ukraine, delivering his now-famous "I need ammunition, not a ride" quote, per CNN. Since then, Zelensky has stayed on the frontline with his citizens, barring diplomatic trips out West.

There are, however, pretty solid measures in place to pass power along should Zelensky fall. On paper, his duties would pass to the chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (Ukrainian Parliament) Ruslan Stefanchuk, per Politico. But during wartime, it's more than likely that command decisions would be shared between multiple people.

Shared power between leaders

If Volodymyr Zelensky dies during his country's fight against Russia, Ruslan Stefanchuk would be the next person in line to lead. Stefanchuk, as the Ukrainian Pravda says, is not only the leader of the Ukrainian Parliment, but also a member of the same party as Zelensky: Servant of the People. Since the beginning of the Ukraine-Russia war Stefanchuk has visited neighboring countries for relationship-building purposes. In December 2022 he visited Lithuania to strengthen ties there. In May 2023, he headed to Poland to apologize for the 80-year-old, World War II Volhynia Massacre. In July 2023 he visited Latvia, which has supplied Ukraine with weapons and ammo in the war against Russia. 

These kinds of thankless missions aren't easy to pull off, and might be part of the reason why the Ukrainian Pravda says that Stefanchuk isn't too well-regarded amongst Ukrainians. Regardless, on Politico Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center says that it wouldn't matter if Stefanchuk became president because "there's a strong leadership team and I think we would see collective government." Stefanchuk would be more of a figurehead, while true leadership would be split between the Head of the Office of the President Andrii Yermak, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, Commander-in-Chief of Ukrainian Armed Forces Valery Zaluzhny, and maybe much-loved "TV personality" and philanthropist Serhiy Prytula — perhaps as a PR-type person.

Ongoing assassination attempts and contingency plans

The EurAsian Times says that the recent, foiled assassination plot against Volodymyr Zelensky is only the latest in a string of failed attempts by "Russian spies." It makes sense that Russian authorities would continue to try and take Zelensky down, as he quickly became the central figure of Ukrainian morale and strength following Russia's initial invasion. This may be why former Russian prime minister and current Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev openly stated in May 2023 (via WION) that "there are no options left other than the physical elimination of Zelensky and his clique." This happened after the drone attack on Moscow's Kremlin Senate in Ivanovskaya Square, which Russia blamed on Ukraine but many analysts considered to be a false flag event — a Russia-created fake attack to justify a counterattack, as CNBC outlines.

And yet, such counterattacks, assassination plots, and public calls to kill Zelensky haven't amounted to much. Speaking to CNN, Zelensky simply said that he has no time to think about being assassinated. And so, he travels as necessary, keeps his movements secret, and relies on his personnel to determine how to protect him. In similar fashion, it would fall to others to figure out how to continue without him. If Ruslan Stefanchuk succeeds Zelensky and shares power with others in a coalition-type wartime collective, it would help maintain public trust in Ukraine's government at one of the most critical times in their nation's history.