PARIS (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met for the first time Monday, at a summit in Paris to try to end five years of war between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists.
Both leaders sat down at the French presidential palace along with the leaders of France and Germany for talks focused on reviving a 2015 peace agreement for eastern Ukraine that has largely stalled. The war has killed 14,000 people since 2014, emboldened the Kremlin and reshaped European geopolitics, and Zelensky in particular is keen for it to end.
A major breakthrough is unlikely, and Ukrainian protesters in Kyiv are heaping pressure on Zelensky not to surrender too much to Putin at their first face-to-face meeting.
But the fact that Putin and Zelensky met at all was a significant step, after years of war. Putin and Zelensky faced each other across the table, flanked by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin and Zelensky are expected to hold a separate one-on-one meeting later.
Whatever happens, the summit is the biggest test yet for Zelensky, a comic actor and political novice who won the presidency this year in a landslide — partly on promises to end the war.
The 2015 peace agreement helped to reduce the intensity of the fighting, but Ukrainian soldiers and Russia-backed separatists have continued to exchange fire across World War I-style trenches along a front line that slices through eastern Ukraine.
While Zelensky still enjoys broad public support, he has been embarrassed by the scandal around his discussions with US President Donald Trump that have unleashed an impeachment inquiry in Washington. The US is an important military backer for Ukraine, which is hugely out-gunned by Russia.
While the US was never part of this peace process, US backing has strengthened Ukraine’s overall negotiating position vis-a-vis Russia in the past. Now that support is increasingly in doubt, after the Trump administration froze military aid earlier this year and is increasingly focused on Trump’s re-election bid. With US influence waning around the world, many in Kyiv see one clear winner: Russia.
Some Ukrainians fear Zelensky will be out-maneuvered by Putin. Several thousand protesters rallied in the Ukrainian capital on Sunday to urge Zelensky not to make any concessions to Russia, and 100 opposition activists set up a tent camp outside his office with banners reading “No to capitulation!”
“Russia started the war, and any negotiations with the aggressor elicit our suspicion and vigilance, especially when we’re being forced into peace on Russian terms,” said 21-year-old student Igor Derbunov,
In front of the French presidential palace, two protesters from the feminist group Femen, which originated in Ukraine, bared their breasts and shouted “Stop Putin Now!” They were quickly whisked away by police.
Russia wants to use the summit to increase pressure on Zelensky to fulfill the 2015 Minsk peace accord, which promises wide autonomy to Ukraine’s rebel-held regions.
Zelensky wants to tweak the timeline laid out in the Minsk accord, which calls for Ukraine to be able to regain control of its border with Russia only after local elections are held in the separatist regions and the regions receive autonomous status. Zelensky says Ukraine must get control of its border first, before local elections are held, but the Kremlin insists that that is not an option.
French officials say potential changes to the timeline will be discussed but stressed the summit is aimed at fulfilling the Minsk accord, not writing a new peace deal.
Germany and France helped to broker the Minsk accord, in hopes of ending a conflict on Europe’s eastern edge that has complicated relations with Russia, a powerful trading partner and diplomatic player.
But with progress stalled, leaders of the two countries have not met since 2016. Monday’s summit is the first involving Zelensky and Macron, who has sought to improve relations with Russia.
To pave the way for the talks in Paris, Ukraine and Russia struck a prisoner exchange deal in September, and agreed on a troop and heavy weapons pullback from two locations in eastern Ukraine. Russia has also released three Ukrainian navy ships that were seized a year ago.
Zelensky said he hopes they will help achieve a lasting cease-fire and a deal to exchange all prisoners held by the warring parties.
Russia denies providing troops and weapons to help the separatists, but has maintained political support and sent aid. It argues that people in eastern Ukraine feel stronger cultural and linguistic ties to Russia than to Western-leaning Kyiv.
Russia’s interior minister announced Monday that about 125,000 residents of rebel-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine have been given Russian passports since April. Putin issued a decree allowing residents of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions to apply for Russian citizenship under a simplified procedure. The move was condemned in Kyiv as the latest sign of Russian interference in Ukraine’s domestic affairs.
The Kremlin hopes that an end to the conflict could also lead to the eventual lifting of EU sanctions against Russia linked to the fighting, which European businesses have pushed for. The EU and US imposed separate sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
The EU is expected to extend sanctions this week by another six months. Arriving for meetings in Brussels on Monday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “At the moment, I see no grounds to change anything in the European Union’s sanctions policy toward Russia in this matter. It would be good if we could get there at some point.”