Ukraine faces new challenges in peace talks with Russia

December 09, 2019

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Kiev: People take part in a rally, “Red lines for ZE” (nickname of the Ukrainian president) to call for “no capitulation” to Russia on the eve of  a summit between Ukraine and Russia in Paris on Monday. The French  president and the German chancellor will moderate the summit, aimed at ending five years of fighting between the two countries. —AFP
Kiev: People take part in a rally, “Red lines for ZE” (nickname of the Ukrainian president) to call for “no capitulation” to Russia on the eve of a summit between Ukraine and Russia in Paris on Monday. The French president and the German chancellor will moderate the summit, aimed at ending five years of fighting between the two countries. —AFP

WARSAW: When new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy sits down on Monday for peace talks in Paris with Russian President Vladimir Putin in their first face-to-face meeting, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

More than five years of fighting in eastern Ukraine between government troops and Moscow-backed separatists has killed more than 14,000 people, and a ceasefire has remained elusive. While Zelenskiy has made ending the conflict a priority, the political novice arrives at the table with the veteran Kremlin leader in what appears to be a less-advantageous position: Zelenskiy still hasn’t had the White House meeting with US President Donald Trump that he sought to bolster his stature on the world stage.

French President Emmanuel Macron, the host of the meeting, has made clear recently that he wants to re-engage with Russia and get back to doing business again after five years of sanctions imposed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

Macron and the other mediator in the talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will be meeting Zelenskiy for the first time since it emerged that he criticised them in the July 25 phone call that has become the focus of an impeachment investigation against Trump.

So there are concerns among those who support Ukraine’s sovereignty that Zelenskiy might end up giving too many concessions to Putin. That could lead to a backlash from Ukrainians who strongly oppose any rapprochement with Russia.

The talks are being organised in the so-called Normandy Format, which was launched soon after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its backing of the separatists in eastern Ukraine. The consultations had stalled since 2016 but have been revived following Zelenskiy’s election.

There is a whole cocktail of economics and geopolitics that make the situation for Ukraine very difficult and is posing lot of challenges,” said Bruno Lete, a security expert at the German Marshal Fund of the US, a leading think tank.

But its critical that Europeans and the US support Ukraine, Lete argued. “Without peace and stability in Ukraine, there will never be peace and stability in Europe.

The biggest challenge for Kyiv probably comes from France itself, with Macron speaking recently of the brain death of Nato because of a lack of coordination and leadership from Washington and also saying he wants to re-engage with Russia.

Its like telling Russia, I will work with you and well see about Ukraine, Lete said. He should have waited until after the Normandy meeting. It doesn’t help the cause of European security.

The Normandy Format talks had have also been revived following several confidence-building steps between Moscow and Kyiv, including prisoner swaps and troop withdrawals by both sides.

On Sunday, Pope Francis said he was praying for the talks to bring peace “to that territory and its population.

Taras Kuzio, a security expert and professor at National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, said Zelenskiy has already weakened his own position by agreeing to the talks even though Russia insists Crimea is non-negotiable.

Kuzio described the 41-year-old Zelenskiy, until recently a comedic actor, as extremely naive about international relations and said he will find himself in a difficult place facing a tough opponent in Putin and a population that would reject any capitulation to Moscow.

He said Zelenskiy doesnt grasp that the Russian leader will never compromise over the conflict in eastern Ukraine because for Putin, compromise is a defeat.

Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2019