The delight in Moscow at seeing the back of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has not lasted long.

In Volodymyr Zelenskiy the Russian leadership got the kind of Ukrainian leader it said it wanted—a Russian speaker from outside the old political elite, who talked more emollient language about the Donbass conflict. Some corresponding Western comments portrayed a Zelenskiy win as a victory for the Kremlin.

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
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This notion vanished on first contact with reality. In his first victory speech, Zelenskiy encouraged Russian voters to wake from their slumbers, saying, “as a citizen of Ukraine, I can say to all countries in the post-Soviet Union look at us. Anything is possible!” The warmest response in Russia to Zelenskiy’s victory came not from the Kremlin but from opposition leader Alexei Navalny (the two men are almost exact contemporaries) who praised Ukrainians for their exercise in democracy. 

Putin followed up with an extreme provocation, offering Russian passports to residents of the two Moscow-backed breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine. In answer to this, outgoing Petro Poroshenko would probably have doubled down on patriotic rhetoric. In the first shot of what has been called a game of state-level ping-pong, Zelenskiy’s response was masterful. He announced that he was offering Ukrainian passports to dissident Russians, then, in a measured Facebook post, told Russians why his was a much better offer than Putin’s.

“Ukraine is different in particular because we Ukrainians have freedom of speech, a free media, and internet in our country. Which is why we clearly understand what a Russian passport really offers someone: the right to be arrested for a peaceful protest; the right to not have free and competitive elections; the right to forget about your natural rights and human freedoms.”

The medium was as important as the message itself, being conveyed in both Ukrainian and Russian. 

Ukraine’s language politics since independence has been, to put it mildly, a mess. Under Poroshenko there has been a new push to cement Ukrainian as the language of the state, while offering far too little to the millions who still speak Russian by choice. A new language law, adopted by the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, on April 26, made use of the Ukrainian language in public places, businesses, the media, and education mandatory. Zelenskiy was critical, saying that “the government should enable development of the Ukrainian language by establishing stimuli and positive examples, and not bans and punishments.”

A native of eastern Ukraine, Zelenskiy belongs to the social group that mixes the two languages freely, who do not like Russia but still speak it as their first language of choice. In “Servant of the People,” the sitcom that propelled him to the presidency, most of the characters speak Russian, while switching back and forth to Ukrainian.

Essentially this is a rejection of the flawed notion, shared by both Ukrainian nationalists and Russian politicians, that using the Russian language in Ukraine constitutes a political affiliation to Russia.

If he gets the chance, we can expect Zelenskiy to promote a more nuanced language policy, promoting Ukrainian as the state language but without seeking to penalize use of Russian. 

How much does this matter? Raw power matters more, people will say, and Russian military hardware is still in the Donbass. The Russian establishment will find ways of undermining Zelenskiy. No doubt we will hear a Russian media message that the new president is “hostage” of establishment hardlines. 

It does matter, however, because Ukraine policy in Russia is about more than the elite. The public has a view too, and consistently a more pacific one than its leaders. Since 2014, Putin has spun the idea that Russia is an embattled fortress, with Ukraine its most hostile frontline state. The message is that “brotherly Ukraine” was captured in a coup d’état by pro-Western stooges who are trying to drag their country into NATO and oppress its Russian speakers.

Putin told American correspondent Charlie Rose in 2015, “[Ukraine] is our closest neighbor. We’ve always said that this is our sister country…What I believe is absolutely unacceptable is the resolution of internal political issues in the former USSR Republics, through “color revolutions,” through coup d’état, through unconstitutional removal of power.”

A smiling Ukrainian leader, with a big democratic mandate, rejecting Russian state aggression but reaching out to the Russian public in its own language, makes a mockery of this narrative.

The evolution of Georgia since 2012, the year it voted out the party of Mikheil Saakashvili, is an interesting precedent.

The Georgian Dream government has fashioned a fairly successful dual-track policy of distinguishing between the Russian political elite and Russian society as a whole. On a high state level, since the 2008 war, Tbilisi has kept diplomatic relations with Moscow suspended and defended its red lines on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But Georgia’s recent leaders have refrained from Saakashvili’s inflammatory rhetoric and have cultivated trade and tourism. Up to one million Russian tourists visited Georgia last year.

Russian attitudes to Georgia have changed, surely in large part due to this deployment of Georgian charm. Levada Center polls show a precipitate drop in the number of Russians who consider Georgia to be an “enemy country”—from 62 percent in 2009 to 8 percent in 2018.

The Kremlin can still try and pick a fight with Georgia, and intervene in Ukraine, but it is not going to win any votes by doing so.

To put it another way, on a modest level in Georgia and perhaps now in Ukraine, Putin’s regime is dealing with a new phenomenon—soft power from its neighbors. Beware brotherly Ukraine!