On Sunday, Ukrainians overwhelmingly threw their support behind a political newcomer, actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, to become the country’s next President.
After popping the champagne, Zelensky faces some serious tasks. Ukraine has been locked in a proxy war with Russia for five years, and the conflict has claimed around 13,000 lives in the country’s east.
The Kremlin saw Zelensky’s predecessor, outgoing President Petro Poroshenko, as representing the “party of war,” and the election results in Ukraine were greeted by official Russia with what could be described as cautious hope for a reboot in relations.
“There are chances to improve Ukraine’s interaction with our country,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Facebook. “What is needed for this? Honesty. And we need a pragmatic and responsible approach.”
Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, even suggested Kiev could hit the reboot button, saying, “With all the understanding of how the world works behind the scenes, I’ll still say: Ukraine can go for a reset.”
Poroshenko, the outgoing President, took the cautiously celebratory mood in Moscow as clear evidence of danger.
“You may just look at the celebrations in the Kremlin on the occasion of the elections,” he said on Twitter. “They believe that with a new inexperienced Ukrainian President, Ukraine could be quickly returned to Russia’s orbit of influence.”
A vote for Zelensky does not necessarily mean a return to Russia’s orbit, however. Polls show that anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine is high: Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and efforts to broker a lasting peace in Ukraine have faltered.
But some observers do sense an opening. In an article for Russia’s respected Kommersant newspaper, former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov urged convening a meeting of the so-called Normandy Format – a four-party group (Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany) that has been trying to broker peace in eastern Ukraine – to kick-start international efforts to find a solution to the crisis.
Zelensky’s landslide victory does give him the mandate. But beyond offering Ukrainians an outlet for a protest vote, it’s not yet clear what policies he will pursue.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin is reserving judgment.
In a conference call with reporters Monday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “Regarding the Ukrainian elections, so far it’s too early to talk about any congratulatory wishes from President Putin to Mr. Zelensky, just as it’s too early to talk about the possibility of working together. We will only be able to judge this on the basis of actual deeds by Zelensky.”