In Ukraine, a Rival to Putin Rises

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KIEV, Ukraine — He’s a quick-witted politician who understands the power of television, has broad public support at home and, perhaps not so important, sometimes takes off his shirt in public.

And he is not President Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s paramount leader of nearly 20 years.

This is Volodymyr Zelensky, the former comedian who became Ukraine’s president in May and has followed his unconventional rise to power with an equally unexpected display of diplomatic flair.

Aides to Mr. Zelensky insist that his focus is domestic overhaul, and that he is not striving to become the anti-Putin in a region where the Russian leader has faced much criticism but few competitors for star power.

But a rivalry is already apparent. Ukraine’s relationship with Russia, which seized part of its territory in 2014 and has continued to back a wider separatist uprising, is the pivot around which many of Europe’s most pressing security problems revolve. Mr. Zelensky has approached it with a combination of calculated assertiveness and strategic generosity, reaching out to Russian speakers whom his nationalist predecessor could not hope to win over.

“One of the reasons for this conflict is the two countries have chosen different ways of development,” said Bogdan Yaremenko, a newly elected member of Parliament in Mr. Zelensky’s political party who is focused on foreign policy and relations with Russia.

“And now this actor who is perceived very positively by most of his viewers is representing his country,” Mr. Yaremenko said. “So the positive attitude toward Zelensky might be transferred to Ukraine, and the Ukrainian way of government.”

Western sanctions are creating a long-term drag on the Russian economy, denting Mr. Putin’s still-high popularity at home and creating pressure for the Kremlin to find a resolution to the conflict in Ukraine.

Mr. Zelensky campaigned on promises to seek an end to the conflict, giving rise to cautious optimism among Western diplomats over Europe’s only active war, simmering now for five years. Mr. Zelensky telephoned Mr. Putin on July 11, suggesting that both sides were ready to engage.

Like two boxers in a ring, however, Mr. Putin and Mr. Zelensky have spent two months now circling, dancing around and jabbing each other.

Mr. Putin appears to have engineered a series of small crises to test the new president. But where the previous Ukrainian leader, Petro O. Poroshenko, was constrained by Ukrainian nationalist sentiment in Parliament, Mr. Zelensky has seized chances to appeal to eastern Ukraine’s Russian-speaking miners and steel workers — and even to those tiring of Mr. Putin in Russia.

His government declared a cease-fire that is mostly holding, has pulled soldiers from the front line near one checkpoint to ease civilian access, and has invested in border towns on the Ukrainian side. Mr. Zelensky traveled to Mariupol, a steel town in eastern Ukraine, to announce a $25 million investment to reduce air pollution.

“You need to win the minds of people, in the first place,” Gen. Ruslan Khomchak, the chief of the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces, said in an interview. General Khomchak was Mr. Zelensky’s first appointment.

“You cannot solve the conflict in Donbass,” he added, referring to the restive eastern region, “with purely military means. That time is past.”

A senior Western diplomat who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly described Mr. Zelensky as a novice playing a high-stakes game, and doing well, against a shrewd and experienced opponent.

Mr. Putin responded to Mr. Zelensky’s election by offering Russian passports to Russian-speaking residents of separatist areas of eastern Ukraine, a potentially ominous move because further military intervention could then be justified as protecting Russian citizens.

Mr. Zelensky countered with an appeal to the Russian opposition. “We know perfectly well what a Russian passport provides,” he said. “The right to be arrested for a peaceful protest” and “the right not to have free and competitive elections.”

He offered Ukrainian passports to “the Russian people who suffer most of all” from repressive government.

Mr. Zelensky has promised to bring back two dozen Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia late last year in disputed waters near Crimea. But he quickly released the crew of a Russian-flagged tanker seized in a Ukrainian port last month, preferring a chance to seize the high ground rather than seek a trade.

The seizure of the tanker was itself an assertive move, ordered, the senior Western diplomat said, by Mr. Zelensky himself. Ukraine had barred the ship from its ports months ago. It’s not clear, the diplomat said, whether it turned up in Ukrainian waters as a mistake or as an intentional test of Mr. Zelensky’s responses.

To be sure, Mr. Zelensky has been president only two months and opportunities for mistakes abound. On domestic policy, he has already stumbled by suggesting a ban on state jobs for employees of his political opponent, the former president. His administration is a mix of skilled technocrats and comedy cronies whose lack of governing skill is showing through.

Still, members of his foreign policy team want to move the battlefield of ideas away from Ukraine right into Russia, taking advantage of Mr. Zelensky’s long experience appealing to Russians with his mostly lowbrow, sometimes raunchy, comedy shows and movies. His comedic work was widely seen in Russia.

Like Mr. Putin, 66, Mr. Zelensky, 41, burnishes his everyman image, recently taking a dip on camera off a Black Sea dock.

The president has formed a group to create a Ukraine-based, Russian-language television station that would broadcast into breakaway areas and have online appeal inside Russia. Mr. Zelensky’s name was already the second-most mentioned name in Russian media in July, behind only Mr. Putin’s, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.

On substantive matters, Mr. Zelensky has so far hewed close to the policies Ukraine has pursued with Russia for years. He supports, for example, the so-called Minsk peace process of 2015 as a template.

What is new is the shift in Ukraine’s soft power, said Ivan Yakovina, a foreign policy columnist for Novoye Vremya, a Ukrainian magazine.

He said Mr. Putin faced a situation not unlike the wicked queen in the Snow White fairy tale.

“The queen looks in the mirror and asks, ‘Who is the most beautiful?’ ” Mr. Yakovina said. “And the mirror says, ‘You know what, there is this young princess living somewhere far away.’ ”


Post Author: Intercourier

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