Kiev in crosswires as western backing appears to be on wane

Zelenskiy to meet Putin against backdrop of war, gas-pipe politics and potential EU pivot

This time last year, Volodymyr Zelenskiy was preparing a surprise for the millions of Ukrainians who would watch his TV comedy special on New Year’s Eve: an announcement, just before midnight, that he would run for president in 2019.

On Saturday, eight months after a landslide election victory, Zelenskiy will chair a meeting of Ukraine’s national security and defence council in preparation for his first meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

They will join French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Monday for talks that would test the mettle of a leader with many decades of political and diplomatic experience.

For Zelenskiy, a career actor and impresario, the summit will show whether the energy and straight talk that swept him to power at home cuts any ice on the international stage, and whether he stands a chance of making good on his main promise to his people: to end the war in eastern Ukraine.

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Persuading Putin to disarm his proxy militia in the Donbas region would be hard enough with unequivocal western support, given his intransigence in the face of US and EU sanctions and the death of more than 13,000 Ukrainians in fighting that began in spring 2014.

Yet Zelenskiy flies to Paris amid discord between Kiev’s key allies and signs that their stance on Russian aggression is softening, and as concerns over Europe’s winter fuel supplies rise with the looming expiration of a Russia-Ukraine gas deal.

Many Ukrainians fear Zelenskiy (41) will find himself isolated and under pressure to accept an unfavourable deal, as his predecessor Petro Poroshenko did during earlier "Normandy format" talks, including the February 2015 gathering in Belarus that resulted in the so-called Minsk agreement: a peace plan that is yet to be implemented. The Normandy format talks involve France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine in efforts to resolve the war in eastern Ukraine.

Russian influence

Thousands of people are expected to rally on Sunday in Kiev’s Maidan square – the crucible of Ukraine’s 2014 revolution against corruption and Russian influence – for the latest in a series of major protests to demand “no capitulation” to Moscow.

“Given the fateful challenges that Ukraine faces today, on the eve of the ‘Normandy’ meeting it is essential to remind the authorities about ‘red lines’ – the demands of the Ukrainian people that no one has the right to ignore,” Poroshenko and two other pro-western opposition leaders said in a joint declaration this week.

Zelenskiy flies to Paris amid discord between Kiev's key allies and signs their stance on Russian aggression is softening

They urged Zelenskiy to reject any push to turn Ukraine into a federation with autonomy for Donbas, or to hold local elections in the region before separatist militia had been disbanded and government forces had retaken control of the entire border with Russia.

They also warned him against changing Ukraine’s strategic course towards eventual EU and Nato membership, or its demand for Moscow to end its 2014 occupation of Crimea, or Kiev’s international court claims against Russia, which include litigation against its state energy firms for about $22 billion in damages.

"We call on all Ukrainians, all national political forces and civic organisations to come to Maidan . . . to show our unity and determination in the fight for Ukraine," Poroshenko said alongside former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, a rock star whose liberal party entered parliament this year.

As well as stiffening Zelenskiy’s resolve, Sunday’s rally may make clear to Macron and Merkel the limits of the Ukrainian leader’s room for manoeuvre and the backlash he would face at home if he made major concessions to the Kremlin.

During his short time in power, Zelenskiy has moved quickly to revive the moribund peace process by taking steps to build trust with the Kremlin and fulfil its pre-conditions for the first Normandy-format talks since 2016.

Detainee exchange

Kiev accepted a controversial plan on how to sequence elections in Donbas and grant it special status within Ukraine, withdrew its forces in tandem with the separatists from three frontline areas, and exchanged 70 prisoners with Russia.

Zelenskiy said this week his top priority in Paris would be to agree a full exchange of detainees with Russia, so that “all our people can celebrate new year at home with their families”.

He also wants to discuss the establishment of a total ceasefire and the withdrawal of all militia and Russian troops from Donbas.

Only after Kiev has regained control over the entire region and Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia can local elections take place, involving Ukrainian parties and media and overseen by international monitors, Zelenskiy insists.

Russia argues that, under the Minsk deal, Ukraine must hold elections and grant broad autonomy to Donbas before retaking control of the frontier – which Kiev says would allow Moscow to stage sham elections overseen by separatist gunmen, and legitimise the Kremlin’s de facto control over a swathe of Ukraine.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has also repeatedly demanded that Kiev meet the terms of the Minsk deal by holding direct talks with separatist leaders in Donbas and granting a full amnesty to all militia members – moves that Zelenskiy categorically rejects and that would cause widespread outrage in Ukraine.

Lavrov said recently that at the forthcoming summit, Paris and Berlin should “use their relations with Kiev to persuade it that there is no alternative to the full implementation of the Minsk package of measures”.

“We place special hopes on our French colleagues as the hosts of the summit . . . to remove any ambiguities,” he added.

Ukraine has its own concerns as Macron becomes a leading voice in calls for a European 'reset' with Russia

Ukraine has its own concerns over the growing ambiguity of France’s position, as Macron becomes a leading voice in calls for a European “reset” with Russia.

After lamenting the “brain death” of Nato last month, he said: “A new architecture of confidence and security in Europe will stem from clarifying our relations with Russia while stating conditions . . . Has the absence of dialogue with Russia made the European continent any safer? I don’t think so.”

Gas pipeline

At last week’s Nato summit in London, Macron urged the alliance to shift focus from countering the Kremlin to eradicating terrorism.

“Who is the enemy of Nato? Russia is no longer an enemy. It remains a threat but is also a partner on certain topics. Our enemy today: international terrorism, especially Islamist terrorism,” he tweeted during the gathering.

Zelenskiy may see Merkel as his strongest ally in Paris, but she faces heavy pressure from German business groups to mend relations with Moscow and she has been a strong advocate for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will bring Russian gas directly to Germany via the Baltic sea, bypassing Ukraine and its neighbours.

Ukraine stands to lose some $3 billion in annual revenue if Russia stops paying to pump gas across its territory, but Berlin and Moscow are pressing ahead with the pipeline despite objections from Kiev, Washington and the EU’s eastern states.

The current transit contract between Russia and Ukraine expires at the end of this month, causing concern for the EU, which receives about one-quarter of its gas via Ukraine and includes several members that rely entirely on Russian supplies.

Putin says Russia will sign a new deal if Kiev drops some $22 billion in legal claims for damages. The issue will almost certainly be discussed on Monday, and Macron and Merkel will be keen to see the dispute resolved – even if energy experts say a major winter gas crisis is unlikely due to high storage levels around Europe.

Impeachment and Trump

Ukraine has leaned heavily on Washington during its conflict with Russia, but Kiev’s trust has been shaken by impeachment proceedings against US president Donald Trump over his alleged threat to withhold aid from Kiev unless it investigated his political rival, Joe Biden.

“The US strongly supports Ukraine in the Normandy-format negotiations,” William Taylor, acting US ambassador to Kiev, assured Ukrainian media this week. “Russia is clearly to blame, Russia’s actions clearly led to the start of the conflict . . . and this is an opportunity for the Russians to agree to withdraw their fighters and troops and return the occupied part of Donbas to Ukraine.”

Yet there is no indication that Putin is any more willing now than he was in 2014 to allow Ukraine to enjoy the stability it needs to pursue reforms, attract major foreign investment and move further from Russia’s orbit towards eventual membership of the EU and Nato.

"I think everyone is preparing some kind of script. But I am sure that the number of scripts on the table of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is many times higher than we may expect, hope or imagine," Olena Zerkal, who stepped down last week as Ukraine's deputy foreign minister, said of the Paris talks.

“I’m always trying to find out from everyone, what grounds we have for supposing that he’s interested in changing his policy towards Ukraine,” she told her country’s Novoye Vremya magazine.

“Apart from conversations about sanctions and his desire to remove them, I haven’t heard a single reason to think that his attitude to Ukraine has really changed.”