The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany began talks yesterday to find a way to end the five years of fighting in eastern Ukraine that has killed 14,000 people, emboldened the Kremlin and reshaped European geopolitics.
The four leaders are holding a series of meetings at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris to try to revive a 2015 peace deal that’s been largely ignored. The 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.
A major breakthrough at the summit is unlikely, and Ukrainian protesters in Kyiv are heaping pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy not to surrender too much to Russian President Vladimir Putin at their first face-to-face meeting.
Whatever happens, the summit is the biggest test yet for Zelenskiy, a comic actor and political novice who won the presidency this year in a landslide, partly on promises to end the war.
While Zelenskiy still enjoys broad public support, he has been embarrassed by the scandal around his discussions with U.S. President Donald Trump that have unleashed an impeachment inquiry in Washington. The U.S. is an important military backer for Ukraine, which is hugely out-gunned by Russia.
Some Ukrainians fear Zelenskiy will be out-maneuvered by Putin in Monday’s meeting. Several thousand protesters rallied in the Ukrainian capital on Sunday to urge Zelenskiy 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,” one protester, 21-year-old student Igor Derbunov, told The Associated Press.
In front of the French presidential palace yesterday, 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 Zelenskiy to fulfill the 2015 Minsk peace accord, which promises wide autonomy to Ukraine’s rebel-held regions.