Face Time With Putin Gives New Ukraine Leader His Shot at Peace

Patrick Donahue, Ilya Arkhipov and Daryna Krasnolutska

(Bloomberg) -- Ukraine’s president has always seen face-to-face talks with Vladimir Putin as the best chance to end the Kremlin-backed war in his country’s east. This week, he’ll get his first taste.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy will meet the Russian leader on Monday in Paris, looking to advance the promises for peace that swept him to power this year. They’ll be flanked by their opposite numbers from France and Germany as European diplomats push for a breakthrough.

The four-way summit is the first time the leaders have met in the so-called Normandy format since 2016. It represents an opportunity to build on recent progress -- including a prisoner swap and the return of Ukrainian naval vessels seized by Russia.

The gathering also falls in the crosscurrents of geopolitical tensions, with Putin falling afoul of Angela Merkel over a mysterious contract killing in Berlin, Emmanuel Macron seeking a spot as Europe’s marquee dealmaker and Zelenskiy embroiled in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

The Ukrainian and Russia leaders have reasons to engage.

Zelenskiy could arrest a slide in his ratings by resolving the conflict, which has killed more than 13,000 people in five years. Putin would like relief from European Union sanctions imposed after he invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

NATO Goal

Fundamental differences remain, however. Russia retains its goal of keeping its neighbor from joining the EU and NATO, and would want any peace deal to achieve that. For Zelenskiy, major concessions would risk a third revolution for the country in 15 years.

A parallel dispute between the two nations over natural gas supplies isn’t helping, though Zelenskiy received a boost at the weekend as the International Monetary Fund handed him a preliminary agreement for a $5.5 billion loan.

“There may be progress, but there won’t be any breakthrough,” Alexei Chesnakov, a former Kremlin official who consults Russian authorities on Ukraine, said in an interview.

Zelenskiy will push for a full cease-fire in the Donbas region, with another prisoner exchange also possible. But holding local elections in the breakaway areas -- toward which progress was made in October -- has become tricky as protesters in Kyiv complain of capitulation to Russia.

‘Watering Down’

Putin, meanwhile, wants “to prevent any watering down” of a peace agreement signed in Belarus in 2015 but not implemented, according to his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.

But without some concessions from Putin, Andriy Yermak, a top Zelenskiy aide, has referred to a radical “Plan B” to contain and freeze the conflict indefinitely.

“If we don’t see Russia is ready to move toward peace, to implement the Minsk accords, then we’ll literally build a wall -- and we’ll manage to live with that,” he told a conference Thursday in London.

With Zelenskiy’s popularity fading over his economic-reform agenda and ties to a controversial local billionaire, European diplomats fear a window to end the war may be closing, according to two officials familiar with the negotiations.

Zelenskiy can expect a united front from Merkel and Macron after they put aside differences over economic and defense policy at a two-hour dinner in London last week that included coordinating on Ukraine, according to a French official. Merkel’s Chancellery confirmed the meeting.

Zelenskiy has sought backing for his peace plans from church leaders and the military during a trip to the conflict zone. But it’s Putin -- with whom there may also be one-on-one talks -- that he needs to woo.

“I want to bring back from the Normandy meeting an understanding and a feeling that everyone wants to end this tragic war gradually,” Zelenskiy said Friday on TV. “I hate talks with no result. That’s all I’m afraid of.”

--With assistance from Stephanie Baker, Helene Fouquet and Marc Champion.

To contact the reporters on this story: Patrick Donahue in Berlin at pdonahue1@bloomberg.net;Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow at iarkhipov@bloomberg.net;Daryna Krasnolutska in Kiev at dkrasnolutsk@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, ;Flavia Krause-Jackson at fjackson@bloomberg.net, Andrew Langley, Richard Bravo

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.