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'Low-Hanging Fruit' And The Politics Of Perception: Five Takeaways From The Paris Summit On The War In Ukraine

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel listen to Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they attend a joint news conference in Paris on December 10.

Ahead of his first-ever meeting with Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy suggested there was little chance of breakthroughs on the thorniest disputes blocking the path to peace in the Donbas.

He was right.

A Paris summit bringing Zelenskiy and Putin together with the leaders of Germany and France -- the so-called Normandy Four -- produced an agreement for the exchange of all prisoners held in connection with the war in eastern Ukraine, as well as commitments to a cease-fire and pinpoint pullbacks from the front line.

But the sides stuck to their positions on crucial issues such as the timing of elections in the areas of eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists, the future status of those areas, and the question of when Kyiv will regain complete control over its border with Russia.

Here are five takeaways from the Paris meeting on the war in eastern Ukraine.

1. 'Low-Hanging Fruit'

The odds seemed to be stacked against Ukraine's novice leader as he headed into his first face-to-face meeting with Putin to discuss the elusive goal of peace in the Donbas. A comic actor in power since May, Zelenskiy was inexperienced in international affairs, could not necessarily count on unwavering support from Washington, and might be pressured by the leaders of Germany and France, mediators eager for an end to the only war in Europe.

Ironically, said Kyiv-based analyst Illya Kusa, the best Ukraine could hope for from the December 9 talks in Paris was no result.

Partial Progress At First Putin-Zelenskiy Meeting
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However, following roughly eight hours of talks with Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- including a one-on-one meeting with Putin -- Zelenskiy was heading home with a promise that 72 Ukrainians held by Kyiv's adversaries in the 5 1/2-year war will be freed before the new year.

In addition to the "all-for-all" prisoner swap, the Paris talks produced a renewed commitment to the frequently violated cease-fire in the conflict and agreement on a pullback of forces and weapons from three more frontline areas (for a total of six), an increase in the number of civilian crossing points, and reengagement on clearing mines.

These agreements are "largely low-hanging fruits strategically," Christina Parandii, a fellow at the London-based Centre for European Reform, said in a tweet.

But she added that they have "important humanitarian implications" -- something Zelenskiy had stressed in comments before the talks on a war that has killed more than 13,000 people, displaced millions, and left many remaining residents of the war-torn areas living in dire conditions.

While the summit showed that Putin and Zelenskiy remained far apart on the big issues of elections in the separatist-controlled areas and changing Ukraine's constitution, implementation of these smaller steps could help build some trust between the two leaders for future talks, said John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

"These are classic confidence-building measures. I expected nothing to come of this meeting, but I was wrong. These, to me, are a plus, even if I am a little skeptical of the big issues," Herbst told RFE/RL.

2. The Power Of Perception

While progress in Paris was limited, both Putin and Zelenskiy can credibly claim they showed a commitment to seeking peace -- though doubts about Putin's dedication to ending the war will persist in the West, where many believe his main goal in the Donbas is to maintain as much influence over Ukraine as possible.

For now, it was important for each president to avoid the perception that his country is dragging its feet much more than the other on implementation of the Minsk accords -- 2014 and 2015 agreements that provide the chief blueprint for peace, even if the political steps that they set out have gone largely unimplemented amid mutual recriminations.

And, for now, Zelenskiy, who is under far more pressure from his county's citizens over the war than Putin is, appears to have managed to make modest gains without doing what critics at home had warned he might: "capitulating" to Putin and Russia for the sake of peace.

Panandii wrote that "no Ukrainian red lines have been crossed" at the Paris summit.

3. Check Out My Ride

Speaking of perceptions, the battle over optics started before the summit even got under way -- when Zelenskiy and Putin arrived at the Elysee Palace in cars that could hardly have been more different, barring the appearance of a Zhiguli or a Zaporozhets.

Paris is worth a massive car, apparently, in Putin's eyes: He arrived in a big black limousine that was brought in from Russia, where it was made -- an Aurus, apparently, which he has taken to using in part because of the potential embarrassment of riding a Mercedes or other foreign car at a time of severe tensions with the West.

News reports say that prices for the civilian version of the car start at 18 million rubles ($283,000).

Zelenskiy, meanwhile, showed up in a far more modest Renault that could have passed for a family car – perhaps a nod, one journalist suggested, to his persona as a "servant of the people," which is the name of his political party and of the television show in which he played a humble history teacher who happens to become president.

Russian state media made fun of Zelenskiy's behavior at the start of the meeting with the other three leaders, seemingly seeking to underscore the 42-year-old's inexperience in comparison to Macron, Merkel, and Putin, 67, who has been president or prime minister of Russia for 20 years.

"Zelenskiy got confused at the 'Normandy Four' meeting," a headline on a story by Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti read. It showed a clip in which Putin appears to gesture at Zelenskiy across the table to indicate that he should face the battery of cameras filming the start of the four-way talks.

At the table, the four leaders were all smiles, but there was little warmth, if any, to be seen between Putin and Zelenskiy: They did not shake hands in public.

4. Sticking To Their Positions

But the meeting marked a step forward. Putin had essentially ruled out any progress toward peace in the Donbas under Zelenskiy's predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, and the Normandy Four leaders had not met since 2016.

Zelenskiy had made achieving peace in eastern Ukraine -- where fighting broke out as Russia fomented separatism following the ouster of Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych amid the Maidan protests in 2014 -- one of the pillars of his election campaign, helping propel him to a landslide victory in April.

Putin, Zelenskiy Meet In Bid To Bring Peace To Eastern Ukraine
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He quickly took steps to deescalate the conflict following his inauguration in May, speaking by phone with Putin several times -- a move that sparked criticism from opponents who oppose dialogue with the Kremlin -- and helping engineer a prisoner swap that brought 35 Ukrainians home in September.

However, his acceptance later that month of the Steinmeier Formula, a plan for the sequencing of some of the steps set out in the Minsk accords, deepened concerns that he was too willing to compromise with Moscow and sparked protests in Kyiv.

The Steinmeier Formula calls for elections to be carried out in the separatist-held territories under Ukrainian legislation and supervised by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The plan stipulates that if the OSCE judges the voting to be free and fair, then the territories will receive a special self-governing status, and Ukraine will be returned control of its easternmost border.

Putin insisted at the Paris meeting he wants elections held before Ukraine can receive control over its international border. Zelenskiy reiterated he is only willing to hold elections in the territories after that occurs.

Zelenskiy also said he would not give in to Putin's demand that Ukraine enshrine the territories' autonomy in the constitution, something that could give them power over the country's future political trajectory, such as integration into European organizations.

The nation's future course "is to be chosen exclusively by its people," he said.

5. Too Little, Not Too Late?

Some analysts have said those differences may be too wide to overcome, at least anytime in the near future, turning the war in the Donbas into another frozen conflict in the former Soviet Union.

"The issue of #Ukraine's control over its border with #Russia remains the most contentious: Putin's tactic is to justify the status quo by a provision of Minsk-2," Parandii tweeted, adding that the leaders in Paris "didn't manage to change his mind."

After the summit, Zelenskiy said he had hoped more could be achieved.

"Many questions were tackled, and my counterparts have said it is a very good result for a first meeting. But I will be honest -- it is very little. I wanted to resolve a larger number of problems," he said.

And advocates of peace on terms that could be acceptable to Kyiv worry that while Putin may be ready for modest progress, it's unclear whether he will ever give ground on the bigger issues.

Both he and Zelenskiy will face more tests in the coming year.

The foreign ministers of the Normandy Four nations are charged with ensuring the December 9 agreements are carried out according to the timetable set. The four leaders agreed to meet again in four months to pursue the more troubling issues blocking the way to a final peace settlement.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.