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US, Russia Wait to See Which Direction Ukrainian President Will Go

Ukraine's President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, left, meets with Lithuania's Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius in Kyiv, Ukraine, April 25, 2019.

This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service. Pete Cobus contributed reporting.

KYIV, UKRAINE — Following Ukrainian President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s landslide victory this week, top U.S. and European Union officials were quick to offer kudos and vows of continued diplomatic support.

But some Eastern European-based experts say Kyiv’s ties with the West aren’t likely to improve under the new administration.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Council President Donald Tusk issued a joint statement congratulating Zelenskiy on Kyiv’s “significant progress” since the 2014 Maidan revolution that ousted pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, but warned that substantial work remains before realizing “the peaceful, democratic and prosperous Ukraine that its citizens have called for.”

Little foreign policy change

Maksym Khylko, chairman of the East European Security Research Initiative Foundation, said he expects no dramatic changes to Kyiv’s foreign policy under the new presidency. Given the campaign season rhetoric of advisers surrounding Zelenskiy — a few of whom, it has been reported, are likely to fill out his cabinet — cooperation with the U.S. in particular is unlikely to improve.

“There will be attempts to find a new balance of relations between the West and Russia, because in the inner circle that stands behind the new president, we see people with preferences for improving relations with Russia,” Khylko told VOA’s Russian Service.

“And Russia will also try to play on these preferences, along with Zelenskiy’s personal closeness to Russian culture, (and) his inexperience in politics,” he added. “It’s possible that the Kremlin will want to play on his ignorance by imposing on him an illusory position about the possibility of achieving a quick peace in Donbas, (offering) him his quick victory’“ that Zelenskiy touted on the campaign trail.

Donbas region, Ukraine
Donbas region, Ukraine

Split on Russia, West

An ideological split dividing a portion of Zelenskiy’s support base may leave him politically hamstrung when attempting to drum up broad domestic support for explicitly Russian- or Western-leaning economic or trade policies.

“This is not to say that the majority of Ukrainians, given the results of the second round, wanted to be closer to Russia,” Khylko said. “Half of Zelenskiy’s electorate wants to improve relations with Russia — this being the electorate who supported the openly pro-Russian candidates Yuri Boyko and Oleksandr Vilkul in the first round. The other half of his electorate, according to research, sympathizes with the Western course, but they were simply disappointed with the policies of (outgoing President Petro) Poroshenko and largely riled up by rampant criticism and negative materials in the press.

“I think that most of Zelenskiy’s electorate voted for him in the hope of preserving a pro-Western course.”

Khylko also said the coterie of political advisers surrounding Zelenskiy — the majority of whom are experienced policy and political professionals — will be careful to limit Washington’s influence in Kyiv’s foreign policy agenda, a fact of which the Trump administration, he said, is aware.

“On the part of Washington, relations will remain at a high level. The United States’ position is that it understands that not Zelenskiy himself, but those who are close to him, will be less inclined to see official Washington play — in the minds of Ukrainian officials — a leading role in the development of foreign policy.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, watches the opening ceremony of natural gas pipeline from Russia to Crimea during a live video link from the Kremlin in Moscow, Dec. 27, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, watches the opening ceremony of natural gas pipeline from Russia to Crimea during a live video link from the Kremlin in Moscow, Dec. 27, 2016.

Russian Federation, United States watching closely

Nikolai Beleskov of the Kyiv-based Institute of World Policy, however, says neither Moscow nor Washington has yet to develop a firm understanding of what foreign policy under Zelenskiy will look like.

“Russians are waiting for Zelenskiy’s official rhetoric in order to understand his attitude,” he told VOA.

“There will be commemorative (V-Day) events on May 8 and 9, and Russia would like to hear Zelenskiy — whether he will be categorical in assessments of the Soviet past, as was the case with Petro Poroshenko — or not,” he said.

Zelenskiy’s receptivity to economic engagement with Moscow may be tested at the outset with offers of cheap energy.

“The Kremlin can offer cheap natural gas, while Zelenskiy, under difficult economic conditions, will have to choose between raising prices in the housing and utilities sector, (thereby) fulfilling the conditions for cooperation with the IMF, or negotiating with Russia,” he said.

Ukrainian lawmakers sing the national anthem after a vote, in parliament, in Kiev, Ukraine,Thursday, April 25, 2019.
Ukrainian lawmakers sing the national anthem after a vote, in parliament, in Kiev, Ukraine,Thursday, April 25, 2019.

Signal to pro-Russian lawmakers

But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision Wednesday to simplify the procedure for obtaining a Russian passport for residents of separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine — a move that immediately prompted calls from Kyiv for more international sanctions — was likely a signal to pro-Russian elements in Ukraine’s legislative body, the Verkhovna Rada, whose members are slated for nationwide regional elections this fall.

“Objectively, (Ukraine’s) presidential elections choose one person who does not affect the economy, while the parliamentary elections are the election of 415-420 people, not counting deputies from the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea,” he said.

A network of individuals close to Vladislav Surkov, a personal aide to the Russian president, are waiting to see whether Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian politician and oligarch regarded as one of Putin’s closest associates, will be able to unite all of Ukraine’s pro-Russian factions, Beleskov said.

“The results that Yuri Boyko generated in this year’s election weren’t bad, and sociologists say that the Opposition Platform-For Life’“— a national Ukrainian political alliance of like-minded pro-Russian groups — “may be the second (most powerful) parliamentary force,” Beleskov said.

“Russia has the possibility of bringing to the fullest extent more pro-Russian politicians to the legislative body of Ukraine,” he told VOA.

Relations with Washington

The quality of relations with the United States, he said, will depend on whether Zelenskiy’s new administration can satisfy existing benchmarks set for improved ties with the West.

“It is obvious that the Americans will wait for the first steps of the new administration of the president of Ukraine — cooperation with the IMF, rebooting anti-corruption bodies. Everything depends on us,” he said.

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv on Wednesday called the Kremlin’s decree to grant Russian citizenship to people in the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine “absurd.”

“Crimea is Ukraine. Donetsk is Ukraine. Luhansk is Ukraine. We condemn the recent absurd and destabilizing decree of Russia regarding Russian passports for residents of Donetsk and Luhansk, and reaffirm our strong support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine said in a Twitter message.

Zelenskiy’s camp issued its own statement, calling the decree “another clear confirmation for the world community of the true role of Russia, as the aggressor state, which is waging war against Ukraine. Unfortunately, this decree does not bring us closer to the solution of the main goal: the cease-fire.”