What Zelensky’s win will mean for Ukraine’s relations with Russia

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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 . ”