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

Trump says he wants 9 justices in case Supreme Court must decide 2020 election

President Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday that part of his urgency to quickly push through a replacement for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is that he believes the Supreme Court may have to decide the result of the 2020 election.

Why it matters: Trump claimed at the Republican National Convention that the only way he will lose the election is if it is "rigged," and he has declined to say whether he would accept the results of November's election if he loses to Joe Biden.

"Not enough": Protesters react to no murder charges in Breonna Taylor case

A grand jury has indicted Brett Hankison, one of the Louisville police officers who entered Breonna Taylor's home in March, on three counts of wanton endangerment for firing shots blindly into neighboring apartments.

The state of play: Angering protesters, the grand jury did not indict any of the three officers involved in the botched drug raid on homicide or manslaughter charges related to the death of Taylor.

Judge orders Eric Trump to testify in New York probe before election

Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

A judge on Wednesday ordered Eric Trump to comply with a subpoena to testify before the presidential election in a New York probe into the Trump family business.

The state of play: New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) last month said her office had filed a lawsuit to compel the Trump Organization to comply with subpoenas related to an investigation into whether President Trump and his company improperly inflated the value of its assets on financial statements.

Get Axios AM in your inbox

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!