Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday raised the possibility of meeting Ukraine’s president-elect in a move showing signs that Moscow might want to improve relations with the country, which soured after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Putin said if they meet, he and Volodymyr Zelensky should discuss how to end Ukraine’s conflict with Russian-backed separatists in its southeast.
Zelensky, a 41-year-old Jewish comic with no political experience, was elected Sunday on promises of change but has generally stood by the Western-oriented course of defeated president Petro Poroshenko. Zelensky hailed his victory as a sign to people in post-Soviet nations that “everything is possible,” but also has said he wants better relations with Russia.
The Russian leader talked to reporters while in Beijing for a forum on China’s Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative.
“If we have a meeting sometime, begin some negotiations, which I do not rule out, then we will first of all have to talk about how to end the conflict in the southeast of Ukraine,” Putin said at a news conference.
Moscow’s relations with Ukraine soured after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the Russia’s backing of separatists.
Putin also said Moscow is considering whether to offer citizenship to all Ukrainians following his decree this week to expedite applications by residents of the rebel-held parts of eastern Ukraine.
That suggests Russia wants to exert hegemony in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government sees the decree as interference in its affairs and the peace process. Zelensky called for more international sanctions against Russia in response to the move.
“In general, we are thinking of giving our citizenship in a simplified manner to the citizens of Ukraine,” Putin said.
The European Union condemned Moscow for making it easier for people in separatist areas of east Ukraine to obtain Russian passports, calling it a fresh assault on the war-torn country’s sovereignty.
The controversial decree “is another attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty by Russia,” a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.
“The timing of such a decision immediately after Ukraine’s presidential election… shows Russia’s intention to further destabilize Ukraine and to exacerbate the conflict,” the spokeswoman added.
The EU urged Russia “to refrain from actions that are against the Minsk agreements and impede the full reintegration of the non-government controlled areas into Ukraine.”