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?
EL: As so often in Ukraine, things haven't quite gone Putin's way. This is not the first time he's gotten something wrong. He bet heavily on Yanukovych and that didn't work. He didn't understand Maidan, thought it was just a stunt and didn't realize it was an authentic political expression. I think he's still betting on making Ukraine a semi-failed state. And that could still prove right. He's done terrible damage to the Ukrainian economy. He's still got the gas card to play. He's set fire to the house in terms of ethnic and linguistic animosities in some parts of the east, where some people have died and families [have been] traumatized. There's certainly a bit of a tactical retreat. But he's achieved quite a lot of what he wanted with his ability to prove he can cause chaos, that Ukraine is in terrible trouble, and the West is pretty toothless.
BW: What do you expect Putin's next move to be?
EL: I think the gas card is a pretty obvious one for him to play. He can say that Ukraine has to pay full price for gas and if it doesn't he will cut it off. That puts Ukraine in a position of either having to cut off supplies to Europe or accepting a massive shock to the already wobbly Ukrainian industries. I suspect that will be the next card....
The Russian propaganda machine is still very effective and—in defiance of logic and facts—will keep things churning. The Ukrainians will continue to have a problem of either using force to regain control of their sovereign territory or allowing these ragbag militias, thugs, and bandits to set up their quasi-state entities. We're still at the early stages of all this and there is plenty of scope for Kremlin mischief-making and meddling.
BW: What are you expecting going forward?
EL: We've got to keep our attention focused on what is happening inside Russia, on the way this is playing. Is Putin continuing to keep this nationalist frenzy going at home? Are Russians beginning to question the official narrative? Will he try this someplace else? I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he lets Ukraine fester for a bit and turns his attention to somewhere else like Moldova, or Kazakhstan, or Belarus. One of the big points about this is that Putin constantly keeps us off balance. Words and deeds don't match. He does things we don't expect. We try and create a nice rational picture that fits with our world view, but Putin doesn't have our world view. He is very happy to jolt us. So whatever happens next will be something we don't expect.