Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s victory in the 2019 presidential election got mixed reactions, not only in Ukraine, but in its eastern neighbors as well, where the election was being followed no less attentively than in the West. Russia and its satellites monitored and commented on just about every episode in the election campaign. And when the results of the vote became obvious, they rushed to write analyses and to predict what might be expected from the new Ukrainian president. Moreover, the tone of these articles varied from enthusiastic to sharply hostile.
Zelenskiy’s first interviews where he talked about his political position completely vaguely, saying that it was necessary to “come to agreement somewhere in the middle,” were perceived by many in Russia as optimism. Yet on the Ukraina.ru site, which reports on events in Ukraine from the Russian viewpoint, even this restrained interview without any radical statements was given an openly negative assessment. Immediately after it appeared in this source, an article came out with the comment: “Nothing funny here. Everything’s sad and pathetic. We aren’t being offered anything, other than a new version of Poroshenko-2014 adjusted to be a showman, à la Trump-2016.”
From there, the negative tone in the Russian press only grew stronger. After Zelenskiy announced that he would run for president, Russians and their minions in ORDiLO immediately remembered his concerts in support of the volunteers fighting in the ATO and the donations his 95 Kvartal team made in support of the army. They were especially riled over Zelenskiy’s performance before the Armed Forces of Ukraine, where he thanked the soldiers from the stage for “defending the country against all kinds of abominations.” This fragment was clipped and shown repeatedly on all the nationalistic Russian media back in 2014 with calls to ban Zelenskiy from entering Russia.
Understandably, this performance was brought up again now. He was generally quoted on various nationalistic and openly black-hundredist sources that have been promoting one position for many years: that Ukraine has no right to exist, so any Ukrainian politician is by definition an enemy of Russia. In this kind of environment, the new Ukrainian president is regarded as a russophobe and fascist. Just like supporters of Poroshenko are combing old 95 Kvartal skits for anti-Ukrainian sentiments, Russians are looking for quotes demonstrating anti-Russian sentiments.
Correspondingly, any attempts to cheer someone in Russia about Zelenskiy’s victory in nationalist circles are seen as a betrayal and support for “banderites.” The best example of this is Igor “Strelkov” Ghirkin, the GRU operator who started the conflict in the Donbas. Strelkov had harsh words for Russian Patriarch Kirill and stars of Russian show-business for greeting the new Ukrainian president. Zelenskiy’s victory and all of Russia’s policies in recent years regarding Ukraine are described by this camp as a “geopolitical Tsushima.”
The official Russian press so far has not expressed a clear position on Zelenskiy. For instance, the notorious TV presenter Olga Skabeyeva initially referred to Zelenskiy as a “banderite,” and then praised him for referring to the LNR/DNR militants as “rebels.” “Zelenskiy is a banderite and a copy of Poroshenko! The candidate called Bandera a hero and said this was normal and cool. Let’s see when he shows up with the same the same label ‘cynical Bandera’! For Zelenskiy, Putin is the enemy! For Zelenskiy, NATO is a friend! Donbas doesn’t get any special status!” she railed on the program 60 Minut on April 18. But on April 19, her tone changed entirely. “Vladimir, you’re great because you’re the first person who has said that they’re not terrorists, they’re rebels after all, and that’s a very fundamental point,” said Skabeyeva after the debates.
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Other popular talk shows on Russian federal channels also flipped between praising and condemning Zelenskiy. For instance, Russia’s #1 propagandist, Dmitry Kiseliov openly cheered that during the debate, as he put it, “Zelenskiy managed to bring Poroshenko to his knees, both literally and figuratively,” conveniently ignoring the fact that Zelenskiy himself also knelt. His colleague Vladimir Soloviov said gravely that there was no point in rejoicing over Zelenskiy’s victory: “When you ask what kind of team the guy who’s been elected has, they can’t answer. And what first steps he plans to take? They can’t answer. And all of Ukraine is wildly happy. Why?”
Pro-Kremlin politicos, pundits and experts have also assessed the new president wildly differently. Some are hopeful of restoring dialog with Russia and stopping the “drift to radical nationalism.” Others think that there’s no difference between Zelenskiy and Poroshenko and figure he’ll continue in the same direction.
Russian Duma Deputy Natalia Poklonskaya, the notorious one-time Crimean “prosecutor,” cheerily congratulated Zelenskiy on his victory: “I want to greet the people of Ukraine with the appearance of hope for a change in their destructive course. Your president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said that one of his priority objectives in relations with Russia is returning Ukraine’s sailors, the same one that Poroshenko sent to a certain death, like lambs to the slaughter. We remember about the SBU’s kidnapping of Crimeans Baranov, Odintsov, and other Russian citizens who are languishing in Ukrainian prisons. Congratulations, Volodymyr Oleksandrovych. I wish you the wisdom and the strength to send this bloody regime into history and unravel all the misunderstandings. First of all, to return peace to the Donbas and to return the citizens of both countries who are currently imprisoned.”
Political commentator Armen Gasparyan declared that the new president would not be able to return the Donbas because the “republics” would no longer want to be part of Ukraine: “The Donbas has nothing to look forward to from Zelenskiy. Not only because in 2014 he called the defenders of the two republics ‘abominations,’ and not just because Kyiv’s entire policy does not conceive of such a dialog. But because of a very simple and obvious factor: the Donbas republics have built up their own state independent of whether a clown or a confectioner runs Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, former Ukrainian political commentator and supporter of DNR Kostiantyn Dolhov, who emigrated to Russia, now reminds Russians how they vainly celebrated Trump’s victory and warns them that there will be even less to rejoice over in Zelenskiy’s win: “Euphoria over the ‘victory over Poroshenko’ will disappear very quickly. As soon as the excited sheep understand that Zelenskiy will continue Petya’s course, only 100 times more so than Petya himself.
As regards the Russian government, it’s overall tone has been quite chill. Putin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announced that the Kremlin had no intention of congratulating Volodymyr Zelenskiy on his victory and underscored that it was early to talk about joint efforts with Ukraine’s new leadership.
PM Dmitry Medvedev noted that there was a chance that relations might get better under the new Ukrainian leader. However, he made this statement in the most vague and ambiguous manner possible: “Ukraine’s election took place. The results have showm a clear demand for new approaches to resolving the country’s problems. Obviously, the new president will face the task of consolidating the country given the realities of the last few years. I have no doubt that the new leader will continue to use the same rhetoric towards Russia as he did during his election campaign. He’ll repeat the familiar ideological formulas oriented towards different groups of the population. I have no illusions on that count. Still, the chance to improve relations with our country is there. What will it require? Honesty. And a pragmatic and responsible approach. An approach that takes into account all the political realities that have taken shape in Ukraine, first and foremost the situation in the country’s east.”
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Still, the best indication of the Kremlin’s reaction to Zelenskiy’s election, as always, was shown in deeds, not words. Before the second round of the election, when it was pretty well clear who would win, Moscow suddenly decided to institute new sanctions against Kyiv. They restricted exports of petroleum products and coal to Ukraine and banned imports of certain Ukrainian products. It would be hard to call this move ‘friendly,’ and it was clearly aimed against Zelenskiy. Moreover, it was preventive as the president-to-be was in no position to make any anti-Russian moves since he had hadn’t even been elected yet, never mind inaugurated.
It looks as though the Kremlin, like many Ukrainians, has only a vague idea what this new leadership will look like who will be in Zelenskiy’s team, and what kind of policy he will follow. But old habits die hard and so the only way Russia knows how to respond is through threats and blackmail. Whether Zelenskiy will be able to withstand the pressure and not give in is the main question for the next five years. Obviously, not even the newly elected president knows the answer to that right now.