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The Stakes For Ukraine Are High In Monday's Summit Between Putin And Zelenskiy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits a military unit in Ukraine's Donetsk region on Friday.
Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits a military unit in Ukraine's Donetsk region on Friday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made his latest address to the nation this week in the gym, then posted it on Facebook.

Dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants, the 41-year-old former comedian walked on a treadmill as he rattled off the latest accomplishments of his three-month old government. Zelenskiy didn't mention the U.S. impeachment scandal, which few Ukrainians care about. He focused instead on his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, set to take place in Paris at a summit hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron on Dec. 9.

"This meeting is already a victory for us," said Zelenskiy. "I will be able to act more confidently, more strongly, if I know the country trusts me and that our whole independent nation has my back."

For more than five years, a Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine has ground on, costing more than 13,000 lives. It has been three years since a Ukrainian leader last met with Putin. The conflict continues as a low-level war, tearing apart lives and stunting Ukraine's development.

Zelenskiy won in a landslide in April, promising to combat corruption, curb the influence of oligarchs and increase economic opportunity. But his top priority is to stop the war.

Ukraine's new leadership sees Putin as the one man who can end the conflict, and that's why Zelenskiy is eager to talk with him. After annexing Crimea in 2014, Putin fomented a pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine. Kremlin-backed separatists seized parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and Kyiv lost control over more than 250 miles of its border with Russia.

"The strategic goal of Russia is a weak, chaotic Ukraine. If you accept that as their goal, you can understand the logic of Russian behavior," says Dmytro Kuleba, the deputy prime minister responsible for Ukraine's integration into the European Union and NATO.

Going into Monday's meeting with Putin, Ukraine has three goals: the exchange of prisoners remaining in Ukrainian and Russian custody, a cease-fire along the entire front line — and most importantly, a roadmap to regaining full control over its eastern border, or "de-occupation," as the Ukrainians call it.

"The goals are ambitious, but we have to take the opportunity of this conversation to raise all these issues and to find solutions," says Kuleba. "We in Ukraine perfectly understand who Mr. Putin is. He will try to play tricks, but we have to be smart enough to identify those tricks and outfox him."

Former President Petro Poroshenko, who lost this year's election to Zelenskiy, published some advice Friday on how to negotiate with Putin. He warned his successor to avoid a face-to-face meeting in which Putin could use "KGB manipulations" to play on Zelenskiy's emotions and shortcomings. Poroshenko also said Ukraine should insist on the introduction of United Nations peacekeepers and not let Russia insert energy deals into the political equation.

"Nothing in our recent history has cost us as dearly as cheap Russian natural gas," Poroshenko wrote. A series of "gas wars" involving pipeline shut-offs preceded Russia's military invasion of Ukraine.

If Ukrainians are wary of dealing with Putin, the Kremlin is also cautious about Zelenskiy, a political novice with no track record as a politician. Putin only agreed to meet him after a series of confidence-building measures, including a prisoner exchange in September and troop withdrawals at three locations along the front line.

"It's obvious there won't be an agreement, and nobody expects one," Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, told independent Russian broadcaster Dozhd this week. Peskov warned against expecting any breakthroughs, though he did say the meeting was in and of itself a positive sign.

Still, Russia also has an interest in a peace process. Supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine has come at the price of Western sanctions that have led to economic stagnation in Russia.

France is offering the Kremlin an exit from eastern Ukraine, as Macron pushes to normalize relations between the EU and Russia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will also take part in Monday's summit, rallied EU countries against Russia's military intervention in Ukraine five years ago. Now she is a lame duck as she serves out her last term.

The Trump administration, which Zelenskiy had hoped to recruit in his negotiations with Putin, is distracted and immobilized by the impeachment process.

Ukrainian officials are aware that even if the Kremlin does agree to relinquish control over eastern Ukraine, Kyiv would then be saddled with the financial burden of reconstruction, and could be crippled by political polarization between Ukrainian nationalists and Russian sympathizers.

Kuleba, the government minister, says that domestic Ukrainian politics complicate Zelenskiy's peace efforts.

"Democracy is both strength and weakness when you deal with an authoritarian ruler. President Putin doesn't have to agree with anyone but himself in the morning before he goes to the Kremlin," he said. "We are ready to bear the costs of remaining a democracy."

Zelenskiy has seen his approval rating fall from over 70% in September to just above 50% as the sheen of his presidency begins to wear off.

There have already been demonstrations in Kyiv this fall against compromising with Putin. And Zelenskiy's opponents are promising another big protest to see him off to Paris.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.