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MOSCOW: Russia’s reaction to comedian Volodymyr Zelensky’s poll win in Ukraine has been mixed, with the Kremlin refusing to congratulate him but others seeing an opportunity to improve ties after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

The countries have been at loggerheads since a bloody uprising in Kiev ousted a Kremlin-backed regime in 2014, prompting Russia to annex Crimea and support separatist rebels in the east.

Outgoing president Petro Poroshenko’s tenure was marked by the fight against Russian-backed rebels in the eastern Lugansk and Donetsk regions, which has cost some 13,000 lives.

Poroshenko also sought to curb Moscow’s economic and cultural influence in the country.

On the campaign trail, the Rus­sian-speaking Zelensky capitalised on frustrations with Poroshenko’s leadership and criticised some of his anti-Moscow policies. But at the same time he said he would keep Ukraine on a pro-Western course.

Zelensky represents “a chance for improving cooperation with our country,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said, shortly after exit polls were released.

However he said he was under “no illusions” about the president-elect.

The Kremlin on Monday did not react. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that Russia respects the will of Ukrainian people but would need to see “real actions” by the elected leader.

“It is too early to talk of President Putin congratulating Mr Zelensky, or of the possibility of them working together,” Peskov said.

But seeing a more pliant figure in Zelensky, who is younger and less experienced than Poroshenko, wou­ld be a mistake for Moscow, analysts say.

Moscow’s attempts to manipulate the Ukrainian leadership have in the past drawn a popular backlash.

Moscow has no strategy as Zel­ensky’s election was “completely unexpected for Russia,” and now it would have to come up with one quickly, said Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with Carnegie Moscow Centre think-tank.

“There is some hope of change in Ukraine’s relations in Russia now,” since Zelensky’s campaign differed from Poroshenko’s pro-war and anti-Russian line, he said.

“But any careless statement by Putin or Zelensky could halt this.” Moscow has pressed Kiev for years to stop military action and hold direct negotiations with the separatist Donetsk and Lugansk regions, but Poroshenko has refused.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2019