Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to a question during a plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Investment Forum Friday, May 23, 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to a question during a plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Investment Forum Friday, May 23, 2014. // RIA Novosti Kremlin

Putin to Ukraine: We Will Accept the Legitimacy of Your Illegitimate Election

Russia will accept the legitimacy of Sunday’s presidential election in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said in a CNBC interview on Friday.

 “I’m not kidding and I’m not being ironic,” Putin assured CNBC correspondent Geoff Cutmore. “What we want for Ukraine is peace and calm. We want this country to recover from crisis and conditions are to be created for that….It’s a sister nation and we want it to enjoy peace, order and we already cooperate with people that are in power. After the election, of course we will cooperate with the newly-elected head of state.”

But, in the same interview, Putin assailed the upcoming election as illegitimate because, at least according to the Ukrainian constitution, Viktor Yanukovch remains president. “The West supported [a] anti-constitutional coup d’état.” 

He also pointed to $3.5 billion in what Russia considers to be unpaid loans to Ukraine as a future obstacle to more normal relations. “Where is the money?” Putin asked rhetorically. “Give us our money back. You know that would create a very good environment for further discussions.”

Putin argued that the situation in Ukraine today does not provide the “proper environment” for an election, which he said was “not up to democratic standards,” because of ongoing violence. The Russian president put responsibility for ending the crisis squarely the shoulders of the government in Kiev.

“I hope that after the election all military action will stop and a national dialogue will begin….How can one engage in peaceful discussions while there are tanks shelling peaceful civilians or journalists being seized?”

The front-runner, Ukrainian billionaire and presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko, and other diplomatic voices from around the area, expressed skepticism that Russia would indeed cooperate with the new Ukrainian president after the election. “Russia is absolutely unpredictable,” Poroshenko said. The chocolate magnate predicted that turnout out for the election would  “for sure” rise above 50 percent, legitimizing the contest despite the turmoil in the Eastern portion of the country. A recent poll puts Poroshenko well in the lead, at above 50 percent, with his nearest rival, finance specialist Serhiy Leonidovych Tihipko, at around 9 percent.

“We as a state are undertaking enormous efforts,” to keep the election legitimate, Poroshenko told CNBC, sounding very much like a man already in charge. “Many people are risking their lives. Not only soldiers…you can imagine.  One of the members of the election commission was taken as a hostage….these people are risking their own lives just to deliver the rights to the people.”

Others from the region were similarly dubious of Putin’s assurances of better relations with a newly elected Ukrainian head of state. Igor Munteanu, Moldova’s ambassador to the United States and Canada, told Defense One “[Putin] also denied any plans as regards Crimea before, and repeatedly announced that Russian troops will be removed from the border with Ukraine, later unconfirmed by independent reports. And, it seems there is no push back on the separatists’ movement. So, let’s see first how elections will be implemented?”

Speculation has grown that the small nation of Moldova, located between Ukraine and Romania, could emerge as the next site of Russian-led violence over the breakaway area of Transnistria, where Russian troops are currently stationed. Munteanu estimated the number of Russian military in his country at 1,700 regular army primarily guarding stockpiles plus 700 peacekeepers. But he the pro-Russian militia group in the region, the so-called Transnistrian Army, is over 10,000 strong and heavily guided by Russian officers. “For instance, even their current intelligence chief is a former brigade commander of the 14 Russian Army,” he said.

“We try heavily to contest their presence in the region,” said Munteanu.

Russia recently announced moves to abandon some economic ties with the West, inking a 30-year, $400 billion dollar gas deal with China earlier this week. Munteanu said that Moldova in turn would be moving to decrease trade with Russia. He described Moldova’s dependence on Russia for gas resources as a particularly gaping vulnerability. “We import 100 percent of our gas from Russia,” he told a group at the Baltimore Council of Foreign Affairs on Thursday. By August, he said, Moldova would be importing 15 percent of its gas from Romania.

When asked if Moldova would accept the legitimacy of a Porshenko win, Munteanu answered with swift certainty. “Absolutely yes,” he told Defense One. “Mr. Poroshenko lived in Moldova and also is well-known to us. Legitimacy will be provided by Ukrainian citizens.”