In some circles, it’s being called a peace summit.
But the “Normandy Format” meeting in Paris on December 9 seems unlikely to live up to that billing, unless closer adherence to the frequently violated cease-fire in the war in eastern Ukraine counts — and even that may be a long shot, judging by assessments from officials, analysts, and one of the four heads of state involved.
The meeting will be the first between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France in more than three years, and the first time ever that Russian President Vladimir Putin will come face-to-face with Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the comic actor who was elected president of Ukraine in April after a campaign filled with promises of peace.
That means it’s a rare chance for substantial progress toward resolving the conflict in the Donbas, where more than 13,000 civilians and combatants have been killed in fighting between Kyiv’s forces and Moscow-backed militants since April 2014, when Russia fomented separatism across Ukraine after seizing control of the Crimean Peninsula.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron may be eager for a breakthrough — a big step toward ending the only war being fought in Europe today, a conflict that has complicated relations with both Kyiv and Moscow and undermined economic ties with Russia. But there are limits to what Putin and Zelenskiy will do to end the war.
The Kremlin wants to maintain as much influence over Kyiv as it can, using the land held by the separatists it supports in the Donbas as a lever, while the Ukrainian president must balance the benefits of progress toward peace with the potentially disastrous risk of being seen as surrendering to Moscow.
Further complicating matters, the Paris talks come amid a politically charged impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump in Washington that has dragged Ukraine to the fore and raised questions about long-standing U.S. support for the country at a time when officials, diplomats, and analysts say it needs it most.
That all adds up to tempered expectations for a meeting that was in the works for months before a date was finally set and follows steps by both sides to ease tensions, including a big prisoner exchange in September and the pullback of troopsfrom the front line in three locations in October and November.
“I do not expect a breakthrough from the Paris summit,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta Center for Political Studies in Kyiv. “But, most likely, this summit won’t be a failure.”
It’s an underwhelming assessment, but one that may be shared by senior officials in Moscow and Kyiv.
For Zelenskiy, the summit itself marks a measure of success, according to Alyona Hetmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, another think tank in the Ukrainian capital.
The fact that Kyiv and Moscow were even able to agree on a new meeting after years of deadlock “is progress made by Ukraine,” Hetmanchuk said.
“Ukraine met two Russian conditions for holding the summit…even though implementation of those conditions was opposed strongly inside Ukraine,” she said, referring to written approval of what’s called the Steinmeier formula — a German initiative to help restart peace negotiations — and the troop pullbacks in the towns of Zolote, Petrivske, and Stanytsya Luhanska.
But Hetmanchuk said that while anticipation has been high since the leaders agreed on November 15 to hold the so-called Normandy Format summit — a name derived from the site of a four-way meeting early in the war, in June 2014 — hopes should be tempered.
Mano A Mano?
Zelenskiy has suggested his own expectations are modest.
“Often these meetings go in circles, with people repeating the same things to each other,” he told reporters from Time, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and Gazeta Wyborcza in an interview on November 30. “Here’s what I know from studying them: People have come to these meetings intending for nothing to happen.”
In addition to the four-way talks, Putin and Zelenskiy may also meet one-on-one, Putin aide Yury Ushakov said in November. A Zelenskiy administration official told RFE/RL that a one-on-one meeting with Putin was being considered but that a decision had not yet been made.
While the two presidents may use the Paris talks to address an array of issues, including a potential new agreement on natural-gas transit and supply, the war in the Donbas — and the future of the portions of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are held by the Russia-backed separatists — will be at the heart of the discussions.
The war began in April 2014 after Russia seized Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula further southwest. Two peace deals known as Minsk I and Minsk II, hammered out over several grueling hours in September 2014 and February 2015 with Germany and France mediating, managed to freeze the front line and curb heavy fighting but did not lead to a lasting cease-fire.
The fighting has raged on, with Ukrainian soldiers dying at a rate of about two or three per week, and few of the steps toward peace set out in the Minsk deals have been taken. Each side has interpreted their wording differently, and Kyiv contends that the terms — agreed at times when its soldiers were under intense enemy fire — are more favorable to Moscow.
Going into the talks, Zelenskiy, whose popularity rating has fallen from a high of 73 percent in September to 52 percent in November, according to a recent Kyiv International Institute of Sociology poll, faces pressure on several fronts at home, even as 75 percent of Ukrainians support his talks with Putin.
“Zelenskiy, hopefully, understands that his room for maneuver is limited,” Hetmanchuk said.
The president’s critics, including some nationalist groups and veterans and the opposition party of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, claim he is preparing to “capitulate” to Putin by making compromises that would threaten Ukraine’s national security and let Russia off the hook after more than five years of armed interference.
Thousands of Ukrainians from those groups and others protested Zelenskiy’s dealings with Putin in a series of demonstrations in central Kyiv in October. They are tentatively planning to do so again on the eve of the Paris meeting.
“People want peace, not capitulation,” Poroshenko told the Kyiv Post newspaper about the upcoming Paris meeting last month.
“We need peace on Ukraine’s terms. Nothing should undermine Ukraine’s unity, and there should be no federalization talks,” he said, referring to a process – favored by Russia — that would weaken the central government’s control over Ukraine by handing more power to its provinces.
That sentiment was echoed last month in the trenches on the government-held side of the front line, where many Ukrainian soldiers expressed concern over how far Zelenskiy might go to end the war.
“We’ve lost too many people. Too much blood has been spilled for [Kyiv to agree to] compromises,” said a soldier in the town of Mariyinka who asked that he not be named for fear of retaliation from his superiors for criticizing the military’s commander in chief.
At the Paris meeting, Ukrainian officials say, the four leaders will try to advance the terms of the Minsk agreements that lay out a path toward a complete cease-fire, the restoration of Kyiv’s control over the parts of the Donbas held by the Russia-backed separatists, and lasting peace.
In the months leading up to the meeting, Zelenskiy has built momentum with troop pullbacks, coordinating with the separatists to rebuild a bridge connecting the two sides that had been destroyed for years, and negotiating a major prisoner swap with Putin that saw 35 Ukrainians return home in September.
In the November 30 interview, Zelenskiy explained the next steps he hopes to take toward peace, which are likely to be major discussion points in Paris.
First, he said, he wants to see another prisoner exchange “within a clear time frame” and a true cease-fire.
“These first two points are related to the lives of people. That’s why, for me, those are the two most important points,” he said.
Then, Zelenskiy hopes to talk with Putin about elections in the areas now outside government control. In remarks that are unlikely to sit well with the Kremlin, he reiterated that “before elections, we need a full withdrawal, a full disarming of all illegal formations, military formations, no matter the type, no matter the group, no matter the uniform.
“Resolving these three points will create an understanding that we want to end the war,” Zelenskiy said — implying that falling short on any of the three will mean, in Kyiv’s eyes, that Russia is not committed to peace.
Another big bone of contention is the timing of Kyiv’s recovery of control over the border with Russia in what is now separatist-held territory — the frontier across which Ukraine and NATO say Russian fighters and weapons have flowed throughout the war, including the Buk missile battery that shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014, killing 298 passengers and crew.
Kyiv wants it to happen before any elections take place, while Moscow has been unclear about when it might hand back control of the border.
“If we even get to it, it will be the most difficult question in these negotiations,” Zelenskiy said in the interview, possibly suggesting that the thorny issue could be left for a later date.
That would seem to suit Moscow.
In a column for the media outlet Republic, Russian foreign policy analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote that “the Kremlin does not want surprises in the negotiations” and that Putin is unlikely to go beyond discussing what had reportedly been agreed on paper in advance of the meeting — and that does not include the border issue.
Whatever progress is made in Paris, Zelenskiy’s opponents in Kyiv are likely to make a stink, said Volodymyr Yermolenko, director for analysis at Internews Ukraine and editor in chief of the news site UkraineWorld.
“I think that any concession to Russia will be perceived [as] very bad in Ukraine,” he said.
“I think the key thing we should achieve is to stop shooting, to ensure the security part of Minsk,” Yermolenko added. “If the political settlement does not move [closer], we should rather think of social and humanitarian issues: increase access to health care, food, education, people-to-people contacts, etc. Humanitarian and social issues are, unfortunately, overshadowed by the deadlocks in the political process.”
A concern among Zelenskiy’s supporters, according to officials close to the Ukrainian president, is that his position going into the negotiations has been weakened by the impeachment inquiry in Washington, which has laid bare uncertainty over Ukraine policy in the White House and has featured testimony about blunt criticism of the country from Trump.
A key issue being investigated in the inquiry in the U.S. House of Representatives is whether Trump withheld $391 million in military aid for Ukraine in order to get Zelenskiy to open investigations into political rivals of the U.S. president and a widely discredited theory that Ukraine — not Russia — interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Several U.S. diplomats and officials who played a role in shaping Ukraine policy in recent years have resigned or been pushed out of their posts in recent months, complicating Zelenskiy’s push for peace. Those include the former ambassador to Kyiv, Marie Yovanovitch, and former special envoy Kurt Volker, who was involved in efforts to end the war.
William Taylor, a former ambassador to Ukraine who returned to Kyiv to lead the U.S. Embassy after Yovanovitch was dismissed last spring, told RFE/RL in the Donetsk region city of Mariupol near the front line last month that Volker’s resignation was a blow, even though he had made little progress in talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladislav Surkov.
“Sad to say, the conversations between Ambassador Volker and Surkov weren’t getting very far over the past year and a half,” Taylor said.
Taylor said there was a silver lining, though. “The prospects for discussions between the Ukrainians and Russians seem to be moving faster,” he said.
Speaking alongside Macron on December 3, Trump said that progress at the Paris talks is “very important” for both Ukraine and Russia “because they’ve been fighting a long time. Too long.”
“And there’s a possibility that some very big progress can be made,” Trump said.
For Kyiv and Western governments, one major question is whether Putin actually wants to see an end to the war, which has provided him leverage over a Ukraine that has taken a decidedly Western turn since the 2014 Euromaidan protests ousted the country’s Moscow-friendly president.
“Zelenskiy is surely prepared for compromises,” Yermolenko said. “I am not sure that Putin wants compromises.”
For Zelenskiy, meanwhile, there are plenty of pitfalls, but there is a potential bright side, Hetmanchuk said: Even if little progress is made at the summit, Ukraine may come out looking better than Russia.
“Zelenskiy’s strategy at the moment is clear: to show that he is serious about a settlement, that there is political will [to end the war], that he is ready for even unpopular steps at home,” she said. “And if the settlement will not happen, only Putin should be blamed for it.”