Since the invasion began in earnest, Russian officials have made plain that their intention is to push out the current government in Ukraine and install one friendly to Moscow. The State Department accused Russia of developing lists of Ukrainian politicians to arrest and seize as their forces moved forward.
“The importance of Zelensky’s personality under current circumstances is beyond doubt,” said Khrystyna Holynska, a Ukrainian who co-wrote a recent essay in The Hill newspaper about the succession issues. “If something happens to him, it would be very important to send a crystal clear message about who is leading the country now, how the government will be run.”
Ms. Holynska, a researcher at the RAND Corporation, said while it might not be wise for Ukraine to publicize plans to relocate the government, she hoped it was ready to operate in locations outside Kyiv.
Beyond Mr. Stefanchuk, the speaker of Ukraine’s Parliament, the line of succession is not entirely clear, said Ms. Holynska. When Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Stefanchuk became sick with Covid in 2020, Ukrainian legal scholars said the prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, would be third in line to take over.
The Ukrainian Constitution creates the positions of first deputy and deputy chairperson to take over the duties of the parliament speaker, though it does not explicitly say they are in a line of presidential succession.
“People should know who’s next in line,” Ms. Holynska said. “Right now is very Zelensky focused. He’s in the news, he’s everywhere. Losing this image of a leader will be not good for the resistance, for the will to fight, for the spirit in Ukraine.”
Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Safak Timur from Istanbul.