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A polling station in Ukraine's Donetsk region during the second-round presidential election on April 21. Photo: Valentin Sprinchak/TASS via Getty Images

Ukraine's election of comedian and political novice Volodymyr Zelensky as president marks a historic, peaceful transfer of democratic power yet runs the risk that an untested leader could invite more assertiveness from Moscow.

The big picture: A few days after last weekend's elections in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin granted an expedited path to Russian citizenship for residents of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, where Russian forces have waged slow-burning warfare since 2014. The move seems intended to consolidate Russian control of the contested territories while forcing the Ukraine's president-elect and the West to respond.

Flashback: This follows a Russian attack last fall on Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait, in which Russia arrested 24 Ukrainian sailors it continues to hold in custody. In March, the U.S., EU, Canada and Australia imposed additional sanctions on Russia for that attack.

Context: Russia has also used "passportization" in Georgia and Crimea. The tactic aims to make the long-term resolution of the conflict and return of contested territories more difficult.

  • In the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Russia is contravening the Minsk accords — a ceasefire it signed in 2015 with Ukraine, Germany, France and representatives of the so-called People's Republics.
  • The EU and the U.S. have linked sanctions to the Minsk process and the U.S. has dispatched Ambassador Kurt Volker as a special envoy, but those efforts have not ended the impasse or compelled Moscow to fulfill its obligations.

Where it stands: The U.S. and EU have criticized Putin's decree but have not committed to decisive action, such as further sanctions.

  • The EU said that the Kremlin's decision demonstrates the "intention to further destabilize Ukraine and to exacerbate the conflict."
  • In a statement, the U.S. State Department condemned the decision as "highly provocative" and a "serious obstacle to the implementation of the Minsk agreements."
  • The UN Security Council met to discuss the issue on Thursday.

The bottom line: If Russia's latest move against Ukraine goes unpunished, Moscow is likely to see it as carte blanche for further aggressive acts before Ukraine's new government is in place this fall. Western leaders should have learned by now that these destabilizing tactics don't stop in Ukraine, they are part of Russia's larger efforts to undermine democracies around the world.

Alina Polyakova is the David M. Rubenstein Fellow for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Go deeper

Chris Cuomo accuser: On-air "hypocrisy" spurred report

Journalist Chris Cuomo. Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images

A woman who accused fired CNN journalist Chris Cuomo of sexual misconduct said Sunday she decided to come forward after learning of his comments about women who made similar accusations about his brother. He denies her allegations.

Why it matters: Her attorney Debra Katz said in a statement that she heard "the hypocrisy" of his on-air words about his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and was "disgusted by his efforts to try to discredit these women," so "retained counsel to report his serious sexual misconduct against her to CNN."

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director says number of U.S. Omicron cases "likely to rise" — Two years of COVID-19 — Prior coronavirus infections may not protect well against Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: Data demonstrates most-vaccinated counties less vulnerable to worst of COVID — Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating world — Omicron fuels the case for COVID boosters.
  3. Politics: Nevada to impose insurance surcharge on unvaccinated state workers — New Jersey GOP lawmakers defy statehouse COVID policy — Oklahoma sues Biden administration over Pentagon vaccine mandate.
  4. World: Vaccine mandates lose steam in the U.S. while Europe doubles downWHO: Delta health measures help fight Omicron — COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming.
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Vulnerable Democrats: Less Trump talk

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Vulnerable House Democrats are convinced they need to talk less about the man who helped them get elected: President Trump.

Why it matters: Democrats are privately concerned nationalizing the 2022 mid-terms with emotionally-charged issues — from Critical Race Theory to Donald Trump's role in the Jan. 6 insurrection — will hamstring their ability to sell the local benefits of President Biden's Build Back Better agenda.