The strange reaction of the Kremlin

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

The ill-inspired reaction of Vladimir Putin to the election of Volodymyr Zelensky will not help the future Ukrainian president to give the impulse to better relations with Russia that he promised during his campaign. Instead of keeping the low profile adopted during the electoral campaign, mostly for lack of candidates to support, the Kremlin unwisely decided to test the newly elected president on its own terms.

First there was the decision to leave prime minister Dmitri Medvedev in charge of congratulating Zelensky, instead of the traditional presidential congratulation. The pretext was that, if the verdict of the elections was clear, their legitimacy was still in question given that 3,5 million people were not allowed to vote.

Knowing the limited autonomy of a Russian prime minister, Medvedev was clearly expressing Putin’s position, including when he added that Russia would open the door of cooperation only after “concrete acts” from the new president.

Like everyone else, Russia has no basis on which to guess the future policy of Zelensky, but the Kremlin’s attitude was unnecessarily patronising towards a political debutant they could well have considered a blank page. According to his spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, President Putin is ready to start a dialogue, but has doubts about the conditions for this so as long as the inter-Ukrainian problem in the south-east has not been settled in line with the Minsk agreements. This is a fair point, but made at a wrong moment given that it might weight negatively on the dialogue.

The second move was even less friendly. On 25th April, Putin signed a decree simplifying the process for issuing Russian passports to residents of “certain districts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions” who applied for. The law had been approved by parliament months earlier, but the timing of signature was not picked by chance. To make things worse, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov added that it was “too early” to speak of simplifying Russian passport acquisition procedures for all Ukrainian citizens, although the issue had been considered.

That was a gift for President Petro Poroshenko, who thundered against an “unprecedented interference” in the country’s affairs. He was not alone to do this, obliging Zelensky to react too. In his comedian style, je joked that Ukrainians know only too well what a Russian passport amounts to – a ticket to be arrested or silenced. He proposed to offer Ukrainian passports to all Russians wanting to taste freedom, before being obliged to retract this when he was accused of treating Ukrainian passports as a commodity.

The fact is that few people have been convinced by the Kremlin’s argument that the decree was an “exclusively humanitarian” gesture. It just put at a new level of questions about Putin’s intentions concerning Ukraine.

His reactions can hardly be attributed to internal manoeuvres simply because, despite the heavy treatment of Ukraine’s elections by Russian medias, popular interest was and still remain low. Questioned by the independent Levada Centre before the vote, 67% of participants to the poll said they did not follow Ukraine’s presidential elections at all and 38% followed it without paying any particular attention. More revealing: when asked to say which candidate would be better for Russia, 55% said that it did not matter who won, 2% said Poroshenko and 31% Zelensky.

The only explanation left is that the Kremlin wanted as soon as possible to establish a rapport de force towards the new president. This might be seen too as a preparation for the Ukrainian parliamentary elections due on 27 October, whose results can further influence bilateral relations.

Putin knew that no pro-Russian candidate would have a chance to be elected president in present-day Ukraine. And that the main vector of Russian-Ukrainian relations will not change during the Zelensky presidency because Zelensky, like Poroshenko, is, regardless of image and essential differences, part of the consensus among the Ukrainian political class.

But in parliament, a solid group of pro-Russian, or at least not anti-Russian, deputies can make the difference. The political heritage of the Party of Regions linked to exiled ex-president Yanukovich is real; one of its members, Yuri Boyko, former vice-premier minister and minister of energy, came fourth with 11,6% during the first tour; and Viktor Medvedchuk, the informal negotiator under Poroshensko for dealing with the exchanges of prisoners, can also attract voters to his group.

Their strength might satisfy Moscow, but also save Zelensky from a paralysing permanent frontal opposition between the opposition around Poroshenko and his own new Party.

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