KIEV, Ukraine — Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential election has thrust a comedian and political novice into the middle of the most dangerous flashpoint between Moscow and the West since the end of the Cold War.
Whether Zelenskiy is any match at all for Vladimir Putin, a canny and ruthless KGB veteran who has led Russia for nearly 20 years, remains to be seen.
Zelenskiy, who played an accidental president in a hugely popular sitcom but has no real political background, has vowed to keep Ukraine on its pro-Western course. At the same time, he has pledged to quickly reach out to Moscow to negotiate an end to the five years of fighting in Ukraine’s industrial east against Russian-backed separatists, a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people.
Arkady Moshes, an expert on Russia and Ukraine with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said the Kremlin may try to exploit Zelenskiy’s lack of political experience.
Moscow “can on the one hand offer him something and basically outplay him diplomatically, and on the other hand threaten Zelenskiy as an inexperienced commander-in-chief with the destabilization of the situation in the east,” he said.
With nearly all ballots counted in Sunday’s election, the 41-year-old Zelenskiy won 73% of the vote to President Petro Poroshenko’s 24%, reflecting disillusionment with the old elite amid economic woes, deep-seated corruption and the war.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and has fomented the fighting in Ukraine’s industrial heartland in a bid to maintain its influence in the country and keep the former Soviet state from joining the European Union and NATO. NATO doesn’t welcome nations with unsettled territorial conflicts.
The question is whether Zelenskiy will have any more success than his predecessor in halting the hostilities.
“Everything will depend on Putin — whether the Kremlin will continue to use the conflict in the east to put the brakes on Kiev’s movement toward the EU and NATO,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Center, a Kiev-based think tank.
Russia paid a steep price for its actions in Ukraine, with the U.S. and the EU responding with sanctions that have limited Moscow’s access to global financial markets and restricted imports of key technologies. The Kremlin may now be eager to engage in talks with Zelenskiy in the hope that a lull in the fighting will pave the way for the lifting of Western restrictions.
On the campaign trail, Poroshenko warned over and over that Zelenskiy could be easy prey for the steely Russian leader. But Zelenskiy could also face powerful resistance at home.
A case in point: Zelenskiy has said he will push for implementation of the 2015 Minsk peace deal, the internationally brokered agreement that would enable Russia to maintain influence in Ukraine by allowing broad autonomy for the rebel east. But the Ukrainian public has made it clear it opposes any concessions to Russia.
“Any Ukrainian ruler’s room for concessions in the Russian direction is very limited,” Moshes said.
During the campaign, Zelenskiy said he would continue efforts to join the EU and NATO but emphasized that becoming part of the alliance should be approved by a nationwide referendum.
Zelenskiy, who comes from Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east and spent years working in Moscow during his entertainment career, has many friends in Russia’s artistic community who were excited by his election.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev welcomed Zelenskiy’s election, saying, “There is still a chance for Ukraine to improve its relations with Russia.”
Zelenskiy has also pledged to try to integrate people in separatist-controlled areas into Ukraine — a promise that contrasted with the policy of Poroshenko, who made it extremely difficult for those living in the rebel regions to get pensions and other benefits.
In addition, he has vowed to seek a quick release of Ukrainian prisoners held by separatists and Ukrainian sailors seized by Russia during a naval incident in the Black Sea in November. “I will do all I can to bring our guys back home,” he said.
Some observers speculated the Kremlin may release the sailors to create goodwill for future talks. Asked about that, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was noncommittal, saying the seamen have yet to face trial. They are accused of violating the Russian border, charges they deny.
Still, members of Zelenskiy’s team were vague on how he will proceed in trying to negotiate peace in the east.
“There is no magic wand,” Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former finance minister who worked as campaign adviser for Zelenskiy, told The Associated Press. “We will proceed step by step.”
Along with the conflict with Russia, Zelenskiy will face a daunting challenge in trying to root out corruption and reverse a sharp plunge in living standards. While voters saw his lack of political experience as an advantage, observers warned that the reality could be different.
For one thing, Poroshenko’s party and its allies control the parliament, making it difficult for Zelenskiy to form his team and pursue his own course.
“Zelenskiy’s approach is naive and romantic,” said Fesenko of the Penta Center, who predicted the president-elect will now face pressure from various political and business clans who will try to put their people on his team.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow.