Zelenskiy Stands Firm Against Putin But Ukraine Faces Frozen Conflict

KYIV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy demurred when asked “who had won” in Monday’s peace talks with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Paris.

“I don’t know,” he told the press after nine hours of negotiations.

“For now, let’s call it a draw.”

He achieved about as much as he could have hoped for in his first meeting with Putin, and avoided pitfalls that awaited the former comedian when facing a wily foe who has led his country for two decades.

Zelenskiy was elected in April on a pledge to end the five-year war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, and he hailed the first “Normandy format” meeting in three years as a small victory in itself, as he joined Putin, German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace.

Zelenskiy said he wanted to take home a “concrete result”, and he and Putin did agree to conduct a full prisoner swap and implement a complete ceasefire in Donbas by the end of the year.

The “optics” of the encounter were also crucial for Zelenskiy – whose relaxed demeanour and fondness for quips are not classically statesmanlike – and he sensibly eschewed any public handshake or show of good humour with Putin that would have played badly with people watching at home.

Diplomatic Debut 

He also appeared to get on well with and drew praise from Macron and Merkel, amid concern their support for Ukraine may be weakening and after it was revealed he criticised them in a now notorious July phone call with US president Donald Trump.

Most importantly for Ukrainians nervously eyeing their novice leader’s first steps on the diplomatic stage, Zelenskiy stuck to the nation’s “red lines” on a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people and displaced 1.6 million since 2014.

He insisted that separatist-held areas would not be given special status in Ukraine’s constitution, and would only be reintegrated into the country through local elections once government control was restored to the whole of Donbas and the border with Russia.

This runs counter to the sequencing laid out in the 2015 Minsk agreement, which Zelenskiy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, signed under immense pressure as Russian and separatist forces were crushing government troops at Debaltseve.

Merkel said Zelenskiy sought changes to the agreement and she expressed hope that its terms would be treated “flexibly” in pursuit of peace – but the Kremlin has no intention of letting Kyiv off the hook.

EU and NATO 

Full implementation of the Minsk agreement in its current form would help separatists legitimise their hold over parts of Donbas through local elections conducted while militia still ran the area – giving Russia de facto control of the region and a veto over Ukraine’s hopes for eventual EU and NATO membership.

“The wording is very important here,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday.

“Any compromises do not mean a move away from the Minsk agreements. Any move away from the Minsk agreements risks bringing total chaos to the settlement process. So everyone is ready for any flexibility, within the framework of what is established in the Minsk agreements.”

It is in the detail of the Minsk deal that Ukraine’s determination to defend its statehood and integrate with the EU and NATO collides with Russia’s desire to keep a grip on its ex-ally and impose a debilitating cost for its 2014 pro-western revolution.

The impasse probably dooms Donbas to becoming another of the post-Soviet frozen conflict zones – like Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Transdniestria in Moldova – which Moscow uses to hobble disobedient neighbours, but a full, lasting ceasefire would at least save lives in Ukraine and allow it to focus on vital reforms.

Source: Irish Times