Putin refuses to congratulate new Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky

Comedian won Sunday's election in a landslide victory

Oliver Carroll
Monday 22 April 2019 14:02 BST
Adviser to candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy says Ukraine ripe for change

Vladimir Putin has refused to congratulate Ukrainian president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky on his landslide election.

Speaking with journalists on Monday afternoon, nearly a day after the comedian romped home with 73 per cent of the vote, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said it was “too early” to talk about a phone call to Kiev.

Russia would only open the doors of cooperation after judging “concrete actions” of the new president.

“We respect the Ukrainian elections, more so that the verdict was very clear,” he said. “But the legitimacy of these elections is still under question given that 3.5 million people were unable to vote.”

Mr Peskov was referring to the estimated populations living in eastern Ukraine’s conflict zone and under the control of Russian-backed armed formations.

In total, nearly 20 million voters took part in Sunday’s vote, with a higher-than-expected turnout at 63 per cent. International observers have described the elections as the cleanest in Ukraine’s history, with only minor violations recorded.

Earlier, the Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev warned against expecting an immediate warming of relations. Writing on social media, he said the election of Mr Zelensky was an indication that Ukrainians wanted to take a “common sense” attitude to relations with Russia. But he added that improving cooperation required “honesty and a pragmatic and responsible approach”.

Over the course of a minimalist election campaign, Mr Zelensky offered few clues about his political thinking.

But one area where he has been outspoken has been his explicit rejection of the soft ethnic-nationalism pursued by his opponent. Instead, the populist candidate has offered olive branches to the Russian-speaking populations of the southeast. He also suggested that Ukraine needed to be more sympathetic to the people living in the conflict zone in the east.

That approach seems to have helped him to achieve what no previous president has achieved: transcend traditional voting patterns split east-west on language and identity lines.

In the event, Mr Zelensky was supported with massive majorities in all regions of Ukraine. Mr Poroshenko was only able to claim one region, Lviv, in the west, with just over half of the vote.

That redrawing of the political map has created new problems for Moscow, who will find it difficult to present Mr Zelensky as a threat to ordinary Russians.

So far, the Kremlin’s approach towards a Zelensky presidency has been contradictory.

On the one hand, state media have presented the comedian as a model of moderation, with senior government officials also revelling in the rejection of Mr Poroshenko’s politics.

On the other hand, Moscow has showed its teeth, stepping up its trade battle with Kiev. On 18 April, right on the eve of elections, Mr Medvedev introduced new sanctions targetting oil, coal and petroleum. While Ukraine has taken steps to diversify its energy supplies, it remains heavily dependent on Russian oil, coal and, especially, diesel.

Around the same time, Russian parliamentarians made a provocative suggestion that Moscow may begin issuing passports to Ukrainian citizens living in the conflict zone.

Adviser to candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy says Ukraine ripe for change

In his victory speech, Mr Zelensky gave obvious hints of the tensions that may lie ahead. In his easy, folksy style – his shows are popular across Russia – he spoke directly to the Russian nation, over the heads of the Kremlin.

“I say to you, look at us,” he said, referring to Ukraine’s remarkable, peaceful change of power: “Everything is possible.”

The president-elect also highlighted the ongoing detention of Ukrainian servicemen captured in clashes near Crimea in November 2018. He promised to bring back all prisoners of war.

But Mr Peskov was quick to dash hopes of an early release in his comments to journalists.

“We have said there are certain legal procedures that need to be observed,” he said. “The men were sentenced for violating state borders, and so for anything to happen we need a court decision.”

Russia’s court system is widely understood to be under the control of the authorities, returning guilty verdicts in 99.9 per cent of cases.

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