Russia’s reaction to comedian Volodymyr Zelensky‘s poll win in Ukraine has been mixed, with the Kremlin refusing to congratulate him but others seeing an opportunity to improve ties after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
The countries have been at loggerheads since a bloody uprising in Kiev ousted a Kremlin-backed regime in 2014, prompting Russia to annex Crimea and support separatist rebels in the east.
Outgoing president Petro Poroshenko‘s tenure was marked by the fight against Russian-backed rebels in the eastern Lugansk and Donetsk regions, which has cost some 13,000 lives.
Poroshenko also sought to curb Moscow’s economic and cultural influence in the country.
On the campaign trail, the Russian-speaking Zelensky capitalized on frustrations with Poroshenko’s leadership and criticized some of his anti-Moscow policies. But at the same time, he said he would keep Ukraine on a pro-Western course.
Zelensky represents “a chance for improving cooperation with our country,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said, shortly after exit polls were released. However, he said he was under “no illusions” about the president-elect.
The Kremlin on Monday did not react. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that Russia respects the will of Ukrainian people but would need to see “real actions” by the elected leader.
“It is too early to talk of President Putin congratulating Mr. Zelensky, or of the possibility of them working together,” Peskov said.
But seeing a more pliant figure in Zelensky, who is younger and less experienced than Poroshenko, would be a mistake for Moscow, analysts say.
Moscow’s attempts to manipulate the Ukrainian leadership have in the past drawn a popular backlash.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says “too early” to talk about Putin congratulating Zelensky for Ukraine election win, then questions the “legitimacy” of the election, since “3 million Ukrainian citizens in Russia were not given the chance to vote.”
— Steve Rosenberg (@BBCSteveR) April 22, 2019
Moscow has no strategy as Zelensky’s election was “completely unexpected for Russia,” and now it would have to come up with one quickly, said Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with Carnegie Moscow Centre think-tank.
“There is some hope of change in Ukraine’s relations in Russia now,” since Zelensky’s campaign differed from Poroshenko’s pro-war and anti-Russian line, he said. “But any careless statement by Putin or Zelensky could halt this.”
Moscow has pressed Kiev for years to stop military action and hold direct negotiations with the separatist Donetsk and Lugansk regions, but Poroshenko has refused. Instead, he treated the simmering conflict as a war perpetrated by Russia.
Moscow has already made the new Ukrainian leader’s job harder with an oil export ban introduced last week which will take effect in June, just as Zelensky makes his first steps in office.
#GME | "Think about it – the fictional president, the TV president has become the real president."
Volodymyr Zelensky, a TV star turned politician, has won the Ukrainian election in a landslide victory.
— euronews (@euronews) April 22, 2019
Analyst Alexei Chesnakov, a former high-ranking official in the majority party United Russia, said a lot will depend on whether and when Zelensky will trigger parliamentary polls as the legislature has a final say over much of the policy concerning Russia.
Moscow will look at parliamentary polls as potentially leading to “increasing pro-Russian forces on Ukraine’s political scene,” and “implementing the majority of laws that could help improve bilateral relations,” Chesnakov told TASS agency.
But Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies said Russia should not see Zelensky’s relatively conciliatory campaign language as a sign that he would kowtow to Moscow.
“That he doesn’t send out a harsh, combative and anti-Russian rhetoric like Poroshenko is just a question of image and doesn’t play a huge role,” he told AFP.
“Russia annexed Crimea… it is ready to help Donetsk and Lugansk return to Ukraine only as a means to blocking Ukraine’s closer relationship with NATO,” he said.