The main message of today’s presidential election in Ukraine is that war with Russia is off the table—at least for now. Russia and Ukrainian separatists tried hard to prevent the vote—and succeeded in swaths of eastern Ukraine—but now that the election has gone ahead, they will turn to other tactics to press their views.
Yet Ukraine’s new leadership faces other gargantuan challenges, including a decision yesterday by two of its most important industrial regions to combine in their own “people’s republic” called Novorossiya.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s softer rhetoric suggests that he is prepared to at least hear out Petro Poroshenko, a chocolate magnate who, an exit poll predicts, will emerge the outright winner. If the polls are wrong and Poroshenko fails to win 50% of the vote, he will face the candidate with the second most votes in a June 15 runoff.
A president Poroshenko is likely to assure Putin, probably in private, that Kyiv has no current plans to join NATO, which is the Russian leader’s main demand. But, as ousted president Viktor Yanukovych found out in the months preceding his flight in February, it would be political suicide for him to explicitly foreswear a formal link to the West. Putin understands local Ukrainian politics and, as long as he perceives no overt anti-Russian hostility and sees a partner with whom he can do business, he is likely to give Poroshenko a go.
Being a pragmatist (paywall), that is precisely the face that Poroshenko is likely to present to Putin. In other words, Poroshenko is likely to try to take control of a narrative that has turned long-conflicting west and east Ukraine into bitter and violent combatants.
But the challenges are many for Poroshenko, the Wilson Center’s Matthew Rojansky told Quartz.
Right this moment on the Maidan are still very serious, armed people who say they will stay and they will fight to ensure there is “concrete change” in Ukraine. So the next president and the former opposition—now acting authorities—really have to deliver a transformation of the country if they don’t want to face their own Maidan justice. It’s a rock-and-a-hard place problem given that they also have to come to some terms with the former regional party people, separatists, [the] scared population of Donbass [region in eastern Ukraine], and Russia itself.
Putin is unlikely to take Poroshenko’s feet out of the fire by withdrawing Russia’s covert support for the eastern Ukraine uprising. To make progress, Poroshenko will have to apologize loud and clear for early missteps, such as a February decision to repeal Russian-language rights (which was quickly reversed), and take other conciliatory actions.
He will never satisfy all but—along with the help of local oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov, who have helped keep the most extremist tendencies in the eastern regions under control—he may get enough support to keep those regions from seceding for the time being.
Yet Putin himself has much at stake in making things right with Kyiv. While he said rightly over the weekend that it is impossible to isolate Moscow, the West has made Russia’s economic life more difficult at a time when it is already struggling. Putin’s gas supply deal with China last week gives Russia a lifeline starting toward the end of the decade, one likely to grow more important over time. But getting there means keeping Europe calm and, notwithstanding threats to cut off the supply to Ukraine, to actually keep the flow open. Any disruption, regardless of who is ultimately to blame, will reinforce the claims of critics that Russia is ultimately unreliable.