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Red Lines And Relief: Mixed Feelings In Ukraine After Zelenskiy-Putin Talks

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a press conference after the Paris summit. Activists in Ukraine says Zelenskiy crossed no “red lines” in his talks with Putin.

Much hype preceded the Paris meeting of Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Vladimir Putin, the first face-to-face talks between the current leaders of Ukraine and Russia on the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Many Ukrainians feared Zelenskiy would make major concessions to Putin, particularly with European leaders eager for progress toward peace looking on.

But the modest agreements reached seemed to leave little room for concerns of "capitulation" to Moscow, making for a mix of relief at that result and disappointment about the obstacles that still loom large in a country torn by a five -year war in its east.

In a Twitter post, Business Ukraine summed up the announced results by concluding that the “long-awaited first face-to-face meeting between the two [presidents] produced little of consequence.”

There was no definitive agreement on the political issues that stand in the way of resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed forces hold parts of the region known as the Donbas and the war has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014. These issues include the status of the separatist-held areas within Ukraine and the timing of the handover to Kyiv of control over the border with Russia in the region.

But an activist group that had organized demonstrations ahead of the Paris talks said that Zelenskiy did not sell out Ukraine’s interests to Putin at the Paris, talks mediated by the leaders of Germany and France.

“President Volodymyr Zelenskiy did not cross any ‘red lines’,” Varta na Bankoviy, or Watch On Bankova -- the name of the street in Kyiv where the president’s office is located -- said in a statement quoted by Interfax Ukraine.

Varta na Bankoviy took some credit for this, arguing its rallies made the public mood clear to Zelenskiy. ​

Intense Scrutiny

“Thanks to the massive outpouring of discontent, it was clear that most Ukrainians want peace, but not through concessions to the aggressor,” the group, which includes activists who took part in the Euromaidan protests that pushed Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014, added in a clear reference to Moscow.

In Kyiv on December 8, thousands of people demonstrated under Ukrainian flags on Independence Square -- the Maidan, hub of the 2013-14 demonstrations -- to warn Zelenskiy to avoid crossing any "red lines" in the negotiations.

They cited the need to maintain territorial integrity and avoid strengthening regional power at the expense of a strong central government, to keep up Ukraine's pro-European course, to steer clear of actions to legitimize the occupation of Ukrainian territory, to insist on the return of Russian-occupied Crimea, and to keep open the possibility of lawsuits filed internationally over Russia's actions in Ukraine.

The leader of the political party Holos, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, the 44-year-old lead singer of the rock band Okean Elzy, meanwhile, focused on what had been achieved: the goal of exchanging all remaining prisoners by the end of the year and a renewed commitment to implementing an existing cease-fire agreement in the Donbas.

“It is good that we have agreed on a hostage exchange and a cease-fire. These are the only things that matter right now. Let’s see how these are implemented,” Vakarchuk said on Twitter.

Ahead of his meeting with Putin, Zelenskiy had mentioned a cease-fire and prisoner exchange as two key issues he would bring up.

“These first two points are related to the lives of people. That’s why, for me, those are the two most important points,” Zelenskiy told reporters from Time, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and Gazeta Wyborcza in an interview on November 30.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right), French President Emmanuel Macron (center), and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Paris on December 9.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right), French President Emmanuel Macron (center), and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Paris on December 9.

However, Viktor Ukolov, a Ukrainian political consultant, gave Zelenskiy a big thumbs down for his performance in Paris. He suggested, among other things, that the president was prepared to agree to elections in the Donbas too soon and without appropriate concessions from Russia.

“The talks in Paris were a complete failure for Zelenskiy and shattered the illusion that it is possible with Putin to sit down, look him in the eye, and negotiate somewhere in the middle,” wrote Ukolov on Facebook.

Former Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin expressed “alarm” at how quickly Moscow had been willing to agree on the prisoner exchange and cease-fire agreement, plus progress on allowing the transit of Russian natural gas across Ukrainian soil to continue.

Ukraine and Russia have been holding negotiations on a new gas transit deal to replace a 10-year agreement that expires at the end of this year. Moscow said last week the transit tariffs proposed by Kyiv were too high.

Putin’s Long Game?

Klimkin said that short-term concessions by Moscow may be part of a longer-term strategy.

“We live for ‘today’, but Russia’s strategy is not based on just one step,” Klimkin wrote on Twitter.

Oleksandr Bryhynets, a Ukrainian politician and writer, was dismissive of the entire Paris outcome as nothing more than “just words for interviews and announcements.”

Kateryna Kruk, a Ukrainian political analyst and journalist, however, praised Zelenskiy for standing firm on agreeing to elections in separatist-controlled areas of the Donbas only after Ukraine regains control of the border.

Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt summed up the meeting in Paris between Putin and Zelenskiy as ending with “neither breakdown nor breakthrough,” adding on Twitter that “the announced results are still somewhat less than expected. There is still no sign of any willingness of the Kremlin to move on any of the key issues.”

Another round of talks in the so-called Normandy Format, brokered by France and Germany, will be held within four months.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.