Don’t cede too much to Putin, Ukrainians tell Zelenskiy ahead of Paris summit

Ukrainian woman holds a placard reading like 'No to capitulation!', during a rally in front of the Presidential office in Kiev, Ukraine, 8 December 2019. [Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA/EFE]

Thousands of people gathered in the center of Kyiv on Sunday (8 December) to send a message to Ukraine’s president, who meets his Russian counterpart on Monday,  that Ukrainians will not accept a peace deal at the cost of the country’s independence and sovereignty.

“We are here because we are not satisfied with the peace at any costs … the peace at the costs of capitulation,” Inna Sovsun, a lawmaker of opposition Golos (Voice) party, told the rally.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Vladimir Putin are meeting in Paris alongside the French and German leaders in a renewed effort to end a conflict between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed forces in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

Zelenskiy, who won a landslide election victory in April promising to bring peace, said this week that his first face-to-face meeting with the Russian president would give Kyiv a chance to resolve the more than five-year-old war in the Donbass region.

But many Ukrainians are concerned over a possible compromise with Russia, which they see as an aggressor seeking to restore the Kremlin’s influence on the former Soviet republic and ruin Ukraine’s aspiration to closer European ties.

The Kremlin has sent signals that it is ready to work with Zelenskiy, who Putin has described as “likeable” and “sincere”.

Zelenskiy has said he will be pushing on three points at the summit of the so-called ‘Normandy’ type: another exchange of prisoners, the implementation of a ceasefire and the disbanding of all “illegal” armed groups on Ukrainian territory.

Zelenskiy offers curtain-raiser ahead of ‘Normandy summit’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met with representatives of foreign media ahead of the 9 December summit in Paris, which will return to the effort of finding a solution to the crisis in Eastern Ukraine after a long break.

Putin has been less forthcoming about his intentions, but Moscow will likely seek guarantees on the status of the separatist-held territories of Donetsk and Lugansk and the conduct of elections.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a “non-binding document” may be adopted.

The Russian leader will also be looking to hear from France and Germany about the possibility of easing sanctions that have hit his country’s economy.

The leaders’ meeting was arranged after Ukraine and separatists withdrew their military forces from three settlements in Donbass – implementing agreements reached between Russian, Ukrainian and separatist negotiators in September.

Kyiv also promised to grant a special status to territory controlled by the rebels and to hold elections there.

These plans, seen as a sign of Kyiv’s capitulation, sparked protests in the Ukrainian capital.

‘Don’t trust Putin’

In an opinion piece published on Friday, former pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko warned his successor about the Russian president.

“Don’t trust Putin. Ever and in anything. Putin manipulates everything: content, facts, figures, maps, emotions. He hates Ukraine and Ukrainians,” Poroshenko wrote in the Ukrainska Pravda online daily.

“I sincerely advise to avoid meeting one-on-one with Putin, and if this is impossible, resist his KGB manipulations and flattery.”

According to an opinion poll of Ukrainians conducted by a think-tank Democratic Initiative and Kyiv’s International Institute of the Sociology on 4-19 November, 53.2% of respondents are against a special status for Donbas and 62.7% do not accept an amnesty for those who fight against the Ukrainian army.

“We are here so that the voice from Kyiv can be heard in Paris. Friends, we cannot make any concessions to Putin until the last sliver of Ukrainian land is free,” Poroshenko told Sunday’s rally.

Relations between two countries collapsed following pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich’s escape to Russia and Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, which prompted Western sanctions on Russia.

Historian Volodymyr Vyatrovych said many centuries and recent years of Ukrainian history showed Kyiv should not believe in a good will of Moscow.

“Zelenskiy’s new team seems to be returning to this erroneous strategy, which consists in the fact that we can agree with Russia,” he told the rally.

Change in the mood music

Zelenskiy will have to tread carefully, as he may have lost a key ally in the United States, as longstanding bipartisan American support for Kyiv is called into question by Donald Trump’s impeachment scandal.

Mark Galeotti, an associate fellow with RUSI in London, said it was unlikely there would be concrete progress at the talks but that they were nonetheless crucial.

“It’s important because it represents potential for a change in the mood music, it’s a first step,” Galeotti said.

“The Russians are actually making quite a lot of noises suggesting they are much more willing to negotiate than in the past… There has been a meaningful shift.”

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