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Six reasons Russia is at odds with Ukraine’s Zelensky

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky during a news conference on the sidelines of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels on Dec. 15. (Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg News)

MOSCOW — When a television comedian named Volodymyr Zelensky catapulted into Ukraine presidency in 2019, one big promise was to make peace with Russia.

And expectations were high that relations might truly improve despite the lopsided power balance: Putin, a former KGB officer and longtime master of geopolitical maneuvering, versus the political novice and longtime comedian Zelensky.

Things quickly turned toxic.

Putin refused to congratulate Zelensky. The Kremlin questioned the legitimacy of the result. It told Zelensky to “do his homework.” Putin even floated the idea of fast-tracking Russian passports to every Ukrainian, after signing a decree to hand them to residents of separatist eastern Ukraine.

Relations had been in the deep freeze since 2014, when Moscow punished Ukraine for a revolution ousting a pro-Kremlin president. In response, Russia seized Crimea and fomented a separatist war in eastern Ukraine that continues to this day.

Russia’s rifts with the West keep growing. How did we get here?

Here’s what went wrong between the two leaders.


Zelensky changed his mind on the Minsk peace agreement

Zelensky made peace overtures in 2019, withdrawing Ukrainian troops from the front line with the pro-Russian separatists. He accepted the stalled 2015 Minsk agreement as the basis for peace talks to end the war.

Most Ukrainians opposed the agreement, according to polls, because it required Ukraine to give special autonomy to two separatist regions. To critics, that meant giving Moscow the means to keep interfering in Ukrainian politics and veto Kyiv’s pro-Europe, pro-NATO stance.

Putin and Zelensky met in Paris in December 2019 with the leaders of Germany and France, agreeing to reinvigorate the Minsk peace process and reestablish a cease-fire. The thaw was very brief.

Zelensky called for changes to the Minsk agreement in the meeting. Putin said a single revision could unravel the whole deal.

Still, Ukraine’s delegation began to prepare amendments to the agreement for the next meeting due three months later. It never happened. Nor did the cease-fire hold.

“Rather than seek compromise, the Kremlin leaders seemed to calculate that they could force the newcomer to make humiliating concessions,” wrote Steve Pifer, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, in December. “The unsurprising result: Zelensky’s attitude toward Moscow has hardened,” said his article, titled “Does the Kremlin understand Ukraine? Apparently not.”

How Putin turned back to Cold War brinksmanship in his confrontation with NATO over Ukraine


Zelensky pressed hard for NATO membership

As the peace process foundered, Zelensky called for Ukraine to be admitted to NATO without delay. A NATO summit in 2008 had agreed that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members, but it set no timeline.

“I have a very simple question. Why is Ukraine still not in NATO?” Zelensky said in a television interview a year ago. Next thing, Russia began a major military buildup on Ukraine’s borders last spring.

Putin says that Ukraine joining NATO is a “red line” because he fears the alliance could station nuclear missiles there. Yet Russia’s actions against Ukraine have galvanized Ukrainian support for NATO.

In 1994, when Ukraine was the third-biggest nuclear power with leftover Soviet weapons, Russia signed a treaty promising not to attack Ukraine if it gave up its nuclear weapons. After Russia broke the deal and attacked in 2014, NATO was suddenly popular in Ukraine.


Zelensky shut down pro-Russian TV stations

By December 2020, Zelensky’s popularity was falling. At the time, opinion polls showed that the pro-Kremlin Opposition Platform — For Life party with 23 percent support, compared to 22 percent for Zelensky’s Servant of the People party.

Two months later, Zelensky shut down three TV stations associated with the same pro-Kremlin party. Zelensky’s office said the stations were Russia-funded and being used as “tools of the war against Ukraine” and were closed to “protect national security.”

Kyiv saw the stations as part of a Russian effort to regain control of the country by undermining Zelensky and promoting the Opposition Platform — For Life.

Six ways Russia views Ukraine — and why each should worry the West

The stations were owned by Taras Kozak, a lawmaker from the party. He was subjected to sanctions by the Treasury Department last month, accused of being part of a disinformation effort led by Russia’s security service, the FSB. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said its aim was “to degrade the ability of the Ukrainian state to independently function.”

The Kremlin was furious at the closure of the pro-Russian outlets, calling it an attack on the media. In December, Zelensky shuttered several new channels that sprang up, linked to the same pro-Kremlin party.


Moscow says Zelensky gave up his Russian ‘identity.’

Through Moscow’s lens, native Russian speakers are Russians by identity to be “protected” by Russia. In Ukraine, that is equivalent to nearly 30 percent of the population, seen by Moscow as a beachhead for Russian influence over Ukraine.

Zelensky is a native Russian speaker. But he did not put a stop to Ukraine’s state language law, that had been signed by his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, days before he left office.

The wide-ranging law bolsters the use of Ukrainian in business, media and the classroom. A provision that came into effect last month, criticized by Human Rights Watch, requires Ukrainian print media to publish in Ukrainian. Moscow views the law as an attack on Russian speakers.

Deputy chief of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev, who often gives voice to the Kremlin’s disdain for Zelensky, has called him a “vassal” under U.S. control.

In an October article, he attacked Zelensky as a man “who has spoken Russian all his life,” and who “gave up his identity,” calling this a “repulsive” moral about-face.

Life on Ukraine’s front line: Trenches, abandoned homes and fear of conflict without end


Zelensky went after Putin’s close friend

In Ukraine, one of the closest nonfamily relationships is the godfather, or kum, and godmother, kuma, of your child.

Ukraine’s most influential pro-Kremlin oligarch and politician, Viktor Medvedchuk, has Putin as kum — the godfather of Medvedchuk’s youngest daughter Darya.

Medvedchuk has been a close Putin friend for more than 20 years, visiting the Russian leader at his homes outside Moscow and in Sochi, joining Putin to watch Formula 1 racing and combat sambo tournaments, and sharing vacations. People who gossiped about his close friendship with Putin were “just jealous of me,” Medvedchuk said in a 2016 interview.

In May, Ukraine prosecutors charged Medvedchuk with high treason for allegedly funding separatists in eastern Ukraine, doing gas deals in Crimea and revealing sensitive security information to Russia — all of which he denies. Medvedchuk, one of the leaders of the pro-Kremlin Opposition Platform — For Life party, remains under house arrest.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the treason charges a witch hunt. Putin said it was part of “an absolutely obvious purge” that could turn Ukraine into “a kind of anti-Russia.”

“So what, everyone who’s working with Russia will now face criminal prosecution in Ukraine?” Putin said.

Is a Russian invasion of Ukraine inevitable? Our Moscow correspondents answered your questions.


Zelensky poked fun at Putin

Putin penned a 7,000-word essay published in Russian and Ukrainian last summer arguing that Russia and Ukraine were brothers and “one people.”

“More like Cain and Abel,” Zelensky retorted.

“I can only say I’m jealous that the president of such a great country can afford to spend so much time on such a volume of work,” Zelensky joked, adding that he now understood why the Russian president had no time to meet him.

“It’s nice that the man knows Ukrainian,” Zelensky said, laughing. “I think that if the president of the Russian Federation has started writing in Ukrainian, it means that we’re doing everything right.”

Stern reported from Kyiv.

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