MOSCOW — For weeks, Russian officials cast doubt on Ukraine’s presidential election. But on Sunday voting took place peacefully in 90 percent of the country, and with most of the votes counted Petro Poroshenko has clearly won more than 50 percent and a first-round victory.
On Monday Russian officials recognized the legitimacy of Ukraine’s presidential election, saying the Kremlin would negotiate with the winner.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters his words reflect the thinking of President Vladimir Putin.
He said, "We are ready for dialogue with Kyiv representatives, ready for dialogue with Petro Poroshenko.”
Ukraine’s president-elect acknowledged Russia as “our biggest neighbor” and said he planned to travel to there in the first half of June for peace talks with Russian officials. Ukrainian officials charge Russia is backing separatists with arms and military advisers.
Carnegie Moscow analyst Maria Lipman says Putin’s goal is to force Ukraine to stay within Moscow’s orbit.
“Russia has huge leverage in Ukraine, and can make life in Ukraine more difficult. It is also unlikely to help Ukraine normalize. Russia has a priority. And its priority is to prevent Ukraine from falling in the Western orbit,” said Lipman.
Russia is threatening to cut off gas sales to Ukraine if a debt of $3.5 billion is not paid by next Sunday. With Ukraine in a deep economic recession, the issue of unpaid Russian gas bills will become increasingly critical when cold weather returns.
Kyiv has its own levers of influence. After Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in March, it cut off water flows and train traffic to the peninsula. As the peak tourism season unfolds, Crimean hotels report disastrously low bookings.
Ukraine’s president-elect also signaled to Moscow he has friends in the region, saying his first foreign trip will be to Poland.
New York University Russia analyst Mark Galeotti says it will become increasingly costly for Russia to support Crimea, and a guerrilla insurgency in a neighboring state. He spoke of southeastern Ukraine, a region some separatists want to call Novorossiya, or New Russia.
“If Moscow reaches in and creates some kind of a puppet, pseudo-state of Novorossiya or whatever else, first of all, it will inevitably have to make sure that this is going to be a politically stable unit. It can not cope with essentially a civil war on its own borders. So it is signing up for a quite substantial economic, political, and possibly military commitment,” said Galeotti.
Instead, the Kremlin appears to want Ukraine to survive as a single nation, but under a looser, federal system that would allow Russia to influence eastern Ukraine. These areas have close historic, economic, and linguistic ties with Russia.
The Kremlin is also dead set against Ukraine joining NATO.
Ukraine’s president-elect will face a difficult diplomatic path, trying to accommodate his powerful neighbor to the east while not alienating his overwhelmingly pro-Western electoral base.
Lipman says military forces unleashed in southeastern Ukraine may resist control by political leaders in Kyiv and Moscow.
“Russia has created a new reality, new facts on the ground. Russia has become proactive, not reactive in its relations with the West, making moves that had not been expected, and keeping the Western governments in a state of uncertainty and tension, not knowing what next to expect,” she said.
On Saturday in St. Petersburg, Putin dined with foreign reporters, pointedly serving them fish from Crimea. When one reporter reminded him of President Obama's denunciation of Russia's annexation of Crimea, Putin snapped, "No one should talk like that to Russia!"
Ukraine’s president-elect Petro Poroshenko says he is “well acquainted” with Russia’s leader, but the coming weeks loom as a test of this relationship.