PARIS (AP) – A long-awaited summit in Paris on Monday is aiming to find a way to end the war in Ukraine, after five years and 14,000 lives lost in a conflict that has emboldened the Kremlin and reshaped European geopolitics.
The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France are holding a series of meetings at the Elysee Palace to try to revive a 2015 peace deal thatâ€™s gone largely ignored, as Ukrainian soldiers and Russia-backed separatists continue to exchange fire across World War I-style trenches along the front line slicing through eastern Ukraine.
A major breakthrough is unlikely, but whatever happens, the summit is the biggest test yet for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who won the presidency this year in a landslide — partly on promises to end the war.
Monday’s summit notably includes the first face-to-face meeting between Zelenskiy, a comic actor and political novice, with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While Zelenskiy still enjoys broad public support, he has been embarrassed by the scandal around his discussions with U.S. President Donald Trump that unleashed an impeachment inquiry. The U.S. is an important military backer for Ukraine, which is hugely out-gunned by Russia.
Some Ukrainians fear Zelenskiy will surrender too much to Putin in Mondayâ€™s meetings, and around 100 opposition activists set up protest tents outside government buildings Monday in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Activists are offering free food in the tents and building a stage in front of Zelenskiyâ€™s office, with banners reading â€œNo to capitulation!â€
â€œRussia started the war, and any negotiations with the aggressor elicit our suspicion and vigilance, especially when weâ€™re being forced into peace on Russian terms,â€ one of the protesters, 21-year-old student Igor Derbunov, told The Associated Press.
â€œAny secret agreements with the Kremlin behind our backs will lead to protests all over Ukraine,â€ said Denis Krutinskiy, a 36-year-old former serviceman.
Russia wants to use the summit to increase pressure on Zelenskiy to fulfill the 2015 Minsk peace accord, which gives the rebel-held regions more autonomy in exchange for ending the fighting.
Zelenskiy wants to tweak the timeline laid out in the Minsk accord, which calls for Ukraine to be able to regain control of its border with Russia only after local elections are held in the separatist regions and the regions receive autonomous status. Zelenskiy says Ukraine must get control of its border before local elections are held, instead.
The Kremlin insists thatâ€™s not an option, and the separatists hope that Russia, France and Germany refuse Zelenskiyâ€™s requests.
â€œThere are expectations that three guarantors of the Minsk agreements will explain to Zelenskiy that the agreements canâ€™t be revised,â€ Natalya Nikonorova, foreign minister of the separatistsâ€™ unrecognized Donetsk Peopleâ€™s Republic, was quoted Monday in Russian daily Kommersant as saying.
French officials say potential changes to the timeline will be discussed Monday, but stressed that the summit is aimed at fulfilling the Minsk accord — not writing a new peace deal.
Germany and France helped to broker the Minsk accord, in hopes of ending a conflict on Europeâ€™s eastern edge that has complicated relations with Russia, a powerful trading partner and diplomatic player. The four countriesâ€™ leaders held a series of meetings starting in 2014 in Normandy as what is known as the â€œNormandy formatâ€ peace process.
But with progress stalled on the ground, the leaders havenâ€™t met since 2016. Mondayâ€™s summit is the first involving Zelenskiy and Macron, who has sought to improve relations with Russia and pushed for the renewed talks, encouraged by Zelenskiyâ€™s determination to end the war.
Ukraine and Russia struck a prisoner exchange deal in September and agreed on a troop pullback from two locations in eastern Ukraine to pave the way for the Paris talks. Russia has also released three Ukrainian navy ships seized a year ago.
Zelenskiy said before Mondayâ€™s talks that he hopes they will help achieve a lasting cease-fire, and that he hopes to negotiate a quick deal to exchange all prisoners held by the warring parties.
An end to the conflict in the region known as the Donbass could also lead to an eventual lifting of EU sanctions against Russia linked to the eastern Ukraine fighting, which the Kremlin and European businesses have pushed for. The EU and U.S. imposed separate sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Ukraineâ€™s Crimea.
The EU is expected to extend sanctions this week by another six months. Arriving for meetings in Brussels on Monday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: â€œAt the moment I see no grounds to change anything in the European Unionâ€™s sanctions policy toward Russia in this matter. It would be good if we could get there at some point.â€
â€œEveryone knows that a solution to the question of Ukraine is one of the conditions for the relationship between the European Union and Russia developing better ties.â€ he said.
Karmanau reported from Kyiv. Angela Charlton in Paris, Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.