There are still plenty of ways Russia can continue to meddle in Ukraine's affairs. But with Petro Poroshenko's apparent victory in the May 25 presidential election amid a solid turnout, Kiev may have turned a corner. I spoke with longtime Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, international editor of The Economist.
Brian Whitmore: What is your main takeaway from today's election in Ukraine?
Edward Lucas: This was quite unlike a Russian election because we didn't know at the start of the campaign who was going to win it. There was a real political choice. It turned out that Poroshenko thrashed [Yulia] Tymoshenko, but that's not unusual in democracies to get landslides. But we didn't know [this would happen] at the beginning. So this was a profound challenge to the Putinist idea of managed democracy. This was unmanaged democracy....
Another thing that is important is that the far right got thrashed. So this idea that Ukraine is run by fascists is complete nonsense. Ukraine is run by a guy who makes chocolate. So the way in which [far-right parties] Pravy Sektor and Svoboda went nowhere is a very powerful counterpoint to the Kremlin demonization of Ukraine.
BW: Do you think the disruptions in the east, in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, will harm the election's legitimacy?
EL: It is only part of the east. If you take Crimea as a lost cause, you have two provinces where things were seriously disrupted, about a tenth of the population. So in 90 percent of Ukraine, things went normally and 10 percent there was some severe disruption. But I still think, even with these lost or disrupted provinces, you'll have a higher turnout than you have in most American elections....
By European standards, this is an impressive turnout. It's going to be very hard for Russia to say that this is a perpetuation of a fascist coup. But this is a necessary but not sufficient condition—one of many necessary but not sufficient conditions—necessary for Ukraine to get back on its feet again. We have an absolutely dreadful economic situation, major constitutional issues, parliamentary elections—and then after that try and form an effective government. So we're at first base, no more than that.
BW: So is it fair to say Ukraine has turned an important corner?
EL: I think they have turned a bit of a corner. They have reversed the narrative. Two months ago, we had a narrative of creeping Kremlin disruption and Novorossiya stretching from Crimea to Odessa. And it is pretty clear that most Ukrainians quite rightly don't like the way their country's been run. But most Ukrainians, regardless of what language they count as their first, don't want to be part of Russia and don't want to see the country break up.... You have a naturally bilingual country where people are happy speaking Russian and Ukrainian. Your linguistic choice doesn't reflect anything more substantial than your family circumstances....
I think the tide has turned a bit. I don't think Putin has been deterred by sanctions. But I think the narrative of Novorossiya has proved less attractive than perhaps he had hoped. It's one thing to get little green men to run around and start chaos. It's another thing to get people to support a full-fledged separatist agenda.
BW: Russia seems to be backing off in recent weeks. Do you see this as a tactical retreat?