Putin Has a Frosty Response to Ukraine’s New Leader

(Bloomberg) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a frosty response to comic Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s landslide election as Ukraine’s new president, with the Kremlin saying it was “premature” to offer congratulations on his victory.

“Moscow respects the choice of the Ukrainian people, especially since this choice is very obvious,” though it’s too soon to consider possibilities for Putin and Zelenskiy to work together, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Monday. “It’s possible to judge only on concrete actions,” he said.

While the untested political novice’s resounding defeat on Sunday of outgoing President Petro Poroshenko came as a relief in Moscow, the Russian leadership has reserved judgement on what the newcomer’s victory will mean for relations after five years of conflict over Putin’s seizure of Crimea and the Kremlin’s backing for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Zelenskiy, 41, gave little away about his policies during the campaign other than a promise to “break this system” by sweeping away corruption. After his victory, he pledged to bring home Ukrainian prisoners captured in the fighting and to revive the stalled Minsk process for ending the conflict.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev urged the comedian to show “common sense” in repairing relations that were poisoned by the Crimea crisis and Moscow’s support of the rebels in a war that’s killed 13,000 people since 2014.

‘Need Honesty’

Zelenskiy has “chances of improving cooperation with our country,” Medvedev said on Facebook on Monday. “For this you need honesty and a pragmatic and responsible approach.”

His arrival in power may breathe new life into efforts to resolve the crisis in eastern Ukraine “through a constructive dialogue between Moscow and the West,” former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov wrote in a Kommersant article.

There are no real “hopes” attached to Zelenskiy, who’ll seek to keep Russia under European and U.S. sanctions imposed over its intervention in Ukraine, according to Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Russian upper house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “Only time will tell if Zelenskiy can move on from pre-electoral rhetoric and become president in his own right,” he said on Facebook.

“The Kremlin is going to test him now in order to understand who this person is,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the administration. “I don’t think there will be advances from Moscow’s side.”

Electoral Base

Unless Zelenskiy manages to establish his own political base in parliamentary elections later this year, he’s unlikely to be able to make any major changes in policy, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a Moscow political analyst who has advised Russian officials on Ukrainian politics.

Russian lawmakers said before the election that the Kremlin is ready to offer passports to people living in breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine, a move that would reignite tensions with Kiev. Medvedev also raised pressure on Ukraine by announcing new trade sanctions days before the vote.

Russia may go ahead with issuing passports, but in a very limited way, according to Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. With both sides trading accusations over the failure to implement the Minsk peace agreements, there’s little immediate scope for a breakthrough, he said.

Russia says Ukraine isn’t providing autonomy promised under the accord to the rebel-held areas of the eastern Donbas region. Ukraine retorts that international control of the area is needed to prevent the flow of Russian soldiers and weapons. A proposal for United Nations peacekeepers remains blocked.

Zelenskiy’s win “is not a victory for the Kremlin,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said on Twitter. “However , opportunities must be explored for lowering tensions in Donbas and starting meaningful dialogue on implementing Minsk.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.