Ukraine’s next president is already getting tough with Vladimir Putin

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Putin declined to send congratulations to Zelensky after his landslide election victory earlier this month. But the Kremlin leader did throw down a challenge. Last week, he signed a decree simplifying Russian citizenship for Ukrainians living in the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.

It was a provocative move that drew condemnation from the US. And over the weekend, Putin seemed to up the ante, saying the Russian government would consider streamlining the procedure for granting Russian citizenship to Ukrainian citizens — not just those in separatist regions.

Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a proxy war since Moscow’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014. Giving Russian passports to Ukrainians — a measure Putin described last week as “purely humanitarian” — could be seen as a pretext for further Russian meddling in Ukraine.

“I would not advise the Russian authorities to waste time trying to tempt citizens of Ukraine with Russian passports,” he said in a Facebook post late Saturday.

“The difference for Ukraine, in particular, lies in the fact that we, Ukrainians, have freedom of speech, free media and the Internet in our country. Therefore, we know perfectly well what a Russian passport actually provides. This is the right to be arrested for peaceful protest. It is the right not to have free and competitive elections. This is the right to forget about the existence of natural rights and freedoms.”

Volodymyr Zelensky  during a presidential election debate

Writing in both Russian and Ukrainian, Zelensky presented Ukraine as a bulwark against the Kremlin’s brand of authoritarianism, saying his government will offer Ukrainian citizenship to those opposed to Putin’s rule.

“Ukraine will not give up its mission to serve as an example of democracy for the post-Soviet countries,” he said. “And part of this mission will be the provision of protection, asylum and Ukrainian citizenship to all who are ready to fight for freedom. We will provide shelter and assistance to everyone — everyone who is ready to fight side by side with us for our freedom and yours.”

That phrase — “for our freedom and yours” — has a particular historic resonance. Originally a slogan of Polish independence movements in the 19th century, it’s a slogan that means that any struggle against despotism must be a shared struggle.

And that’s a message that Zelensky is conveying to Russians, in their own language (and Ukrainians have also chimed in on social media, taunting Russians with visa-free travel they enjoy to Europe with their passports).

What Zelensky's win will mean for Ukraine's relations with Russia

Zelensky is not set to take office until early June, so it’s unclear how much of this back-and-forth will set the new tone for relations between Moscow and Kiev. But it’s clear that for now, at least, Zelensky is willing to take on Putin at a rhetorical level.

And as yet, it’s unclear whether the Kremlin will move forward with plans to offer Russian passports to all citizens of Ukraine.

“It’s too early to talk about such modalities,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Monday.

Early, perhaps, but both Ukrainians and Russians will be watching the officials signals between their respective capitals in the weeks to come.



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