Russia Punishing Ukraine After the Presidential Election

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 59

Ukrainian President-Elect Volodymyr Zelensky (Source: USA Today)

The Kremlin is disappointed and angry with the Ukrainian presidential election’s landslide winner, Volodymyr Zelensky. The president-elect may have over-fulfilled Moscow’s forecasts by defeating the incumbent, President Petro Poroshenko, by 73 percent to 25 percent in the April 21 runoff (Ukraiynska Pravda, April 22). Moscow had expected Zelensky’s candidacy to signal the start of backtracking from Poroshenko’s and his government’s policies of resisting Russian military aggression and orienting Ukraine toward the West. Instead of backtracking, however, and despite initial hesitations, Zelensky’s presidential campaign evolved toward affirming continuity with Ukraine’s existing policies toward Russia and toward the West (see below).
Openly pro-Russia candidates with their narrow voter bases had no chances of winning this election, and the Kremlin did not invest in them. Instead, it hoped that the broad electoral coalition behind Zelensky would defeat President Poroshenko, the Kremlin’s designated archenemy. Moscow did not invest in Zelensky’s candidacy either, and was undoubtedly wary of his links with the tycoon Ihor Kolomoysky. Yet, Moscow saw Zelensky (as did many in Ukraine and abroad) as a product of Ukraine’s russophone southeast, without a clear national identification, the figurehead of an ad hoc electoral coalition that could remove Ukraine’s “party of war” from power, seek “peace” on Russian-approved terms, and scale down Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions. Moscow was probably at work to infiltrate and subvert Zelensky’s entourage, aiming to influence a president-in-waiting whose political experience was nil.
Nevertheless, Zelensky’s campaign moved increasingly toward embracing Ukrainian patriotic positions, particularly during the final two weeks before the runoff. Candidate Zelensky repeatedly asserted that Crimea belongs to Ukraine and he would never give it up to Russia. He would certainly support talks for a more effective ceasefire along the demarcation line in Donbas, and would adhere to the Minsk process. However, Zelensky in fact circumvented the Minsk terms (just as Ukraine’s official policy does) by turning down a special status for the Donetsk and Luhansk territories, refusing to hold any dialogue with their leaders, rejecting the idea of an amnesty for those leaders and their troops involved in crimes, and characterizing the nature of the conflict as Russian aggression against Ukraine. He also called for the removal of pro-Russia politician Viktor Medvedchuk from the talks with Moscow on the release of military prisoners and political detainees.
Zelensky additionally reaffirmed the continuity of Ukraine’s orientation toward the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). And, though a russophone person himself, he supported the position of the Ukrainian language as a sole state language (, Ukrinform, April 10–20).
Moscow has been prompt to demonstrate its disappointment and anger. On April 18 (three days before the election runoff in Ukraine), Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced restrictions on the export of crude oil and oil derivatives (diesel fuel, liquefied petroleum gas) to Ukraine, effective from June 1. Russian oil and those refined products shall hence be exported to Ukraine on the basis of a complicated system of special licenses, on a case-by-case basis. This should create ample scope for manipulation or the withholding of supplies. The impact on Ukraine could be even harder in the event that Russia undertakes to manipulate oil deliveries to Ukraine’s other supplier, Belarus. In the same move, Medvedev announced the prolongation of Russia’s already existing ban on imports of a wide range of Ukrainian products in the heavy and light industries (Interfax, April 18; TASS, April 24).
Only three days after Zelensky’s landslide victory (April 21), Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree on granting Russian citizenship en masse to residents of the Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine’s east (TASS, April 24). This move replicates Russia’s granting of its citizenship (“passportization”) wholesale to residents of Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia, prior to the 2008 war against Georgia. Passportization in Donetsk and Luhansk—entrenching as it does Russia’s occupation of the territory—will greatly complicate any political resolution of this conflict. Russian passportization of the territory’s residents is a preliminary move toward de facto annexation.
Russia is withholding an official acknowledgment of Zelensky’s victory for the time being. The Kremlin has yet to take the routine step of sending a congratulatory telegram. Russian officials are citing Ukraine’s rejection of election observers from Russia, Kyiv’s refusal to open voting stations in Russia for Ukrainian citizens there, and its decision that Ukraine’s presidential election cannot be held in the Russian-controlled Donbas areas. Russian propaganda suggests that those circumstances cast doubt on the legitimacy of the whole electoral process and even on the recognition of its outcome (RIA Novosti and Russian TV channels, April 21).
All these measures are of a punitive nature, intended and timed to show Moscow’s disappointment and anger with an outcome it had not expected from Ukraine’s presidential election. The Kremlin is trying to demonstrate that continuing conflict with Russia is fraught with heavy costs to Ukraine.