- - Monday, May 27, 2019

Vladimir Putin just discovered that getting what you want can backfire. On May 20, Volodymyr Zelenskiy was inaugurated as Ukraine’s sixth president. The Russian strongman let it be known that he wanted anyone but his foe Petro Poroshenko, who had mobilized the international community against Moscow’s war in the Donbas, to win. In April, Mr. Putin got his wish and Mr. Zelenskiy won in a landslide. Mr. Putin thought the novice would be a pushover.

To try to get what Mr. Putin wanted, the Kremlin intervened in Ukraine’s presidential election by issuing media disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks and hosting preferred candidates in Moscow. The Ukraine Election Task Force organized by the Atlantic Council, the Pinchuk Foundation and the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity found that the Kremlin tried and failed to produce election chaos.

While Mr. Poroshenko lost, the reason had little to do with Moscow’s efforts, and everything to do with the Ukrainian people’s unhappiness with the slow pace of the fight against corruption, particularly in the justice system. Domestic issues dominated the election.

With Mr. Zelenskiy’s win, Moscow was hoping for two things. First, the Kremlin was counting on the new president’s inexperience. Mr. Putin has been president for nearly 20 years and his foreign policy successes — for instance, in Georgia and Syria — have been based upon understanding the weaknesses of his adversaries.

Mr. Putin did not wait for the inauguration to challenge Mr. Zelenskiy. For years, Moscow has used the presence of Russian citizens in other countries as a pretext to intervene in those countries. Three days after Mr. Zelenskiy won, Mr. Putin offered Russian passports to the residents of the territory Moscow controls in eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Putin’s gambit did not stymie the president-elect. While politically inexperienced, Mr. Zelenskiy is quick on his feet and, as his election landslide indicates, has an excellent feel for framing issues. He responded immediately that a Russian passport is a ticket to a life where one cannot choose their own leaders or enjoy basic human rights. The warm-up round went to Mr. Zelenskiy.

But Mr. Zelenskiy’s win represents a much larger problem for Moscow. The Kremlin had built its political influence in Ukraine on politicians from the east and south, but the comedian changed everything. Mr. Zelenskiy received majority support in every region of the country except one in the west, and his support in the east was overwhelming.

The key fact here is that Mr. Zelenskiy ran on a pro-Western foreign policy very similar to Mr. Poroshenko‘s. And with that foreign policy he won the support of eastern voters. Those voters used hold Ukraine back from embracing a Western foreign policy, but that is no longer the case.

This should not be surprising. Mr. Putin’s five-year war on Ukraine has been a critical factor in consolidating Ukrainian national identity. Before Moscow seized Crimea, support for joining NATO rarely topped 20 percent. Today a majority favors membership.

The Kremlin has misjudged Ukraine countless times. Today, its spokespeople have ignored the election data and tried to explain Mr. Zelenskiy’s victory as a turn away from Mr. Poroshenko’s foreign policy. But then they were shocked when Mr. Zelenskiy described Mr. Putin as an enemy of the Ukrainian people, not an unfair way to characterize the man responsible for the death of 13,000 Ukrainians and ongoing aggression in the country.

While many in Moscow understand that Russia’s aggression in the Donbas is failing, Mr. Putin is still hoping that Ukraine’s upcoming parliamentary elections will lead to strong gains by more-sympathetic-to-Moscow parties. He is likely to be disappointed by the results. His own policies have greatly weakened such forces in Ukraine.

But before he realizes that, Mr. Putin will certainly try to raise the pressure on Mr. Zelenskiy. This is not likely to take the form of a new offensive in the Donbas or to seize water sources near Kherson to divert to Crimea. To minimize the chance of additional Western sanctions, Mr. Putin is more likely to simply increase shelling in the Donbas to increase Ukrainian casualties, or tighten the ship inspection regime in the Sea of Azov to further diminish imports and exports from the Donbas.

For Mr. Zelenskiy, the challenges are clear. He needs sound, experienced heads to run the Defense and Foreign Ministries, the National Security and Defense Council, and the Council of State Security. He needs to use his great communications skills to maintain popular support for defending Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Mr. Zelenskiy has expressed a willingness to negotiate with Mr. Putin to end the Kremlin’s war in the Donbas. Many are skeptical of Mr. Zelenskiy’s ability to deal with Mr. Putin. But if Mr. Zelenskiy has the right security team, his ability to read people and frame issues may make him a difficult interlocutor for the Kremlin.

• John E. Herbst is director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

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