KYIV -- Ukraine's foreign minister has voiced concern about the prospect of being nudged into an unfavorable agreement with Russia, telling RFE/RL that he hopes the West is pressuring Moscow as hard as it is pushing Kyiv for progress toward peace in the Donbas.
A recent flurry of diplomatic activity between Ukraine and Russia has raised fresh hope for a deal between the countries that could end the more-than-five-year war in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 13,000 people and fueled a bigger geopolitical fight between Moscow and the West.
Western countries such as Germany, France, and the United States have become "so preoccupied by progress" that some in Kyiv are growing worried that they might force Ukraine into a bad deal with Russia for the sake of peace, Vadym Prystayko said in a brief interview on the sidelines of the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference in the Ukrainian capital on September 14.
"I hate this specific word called 'progress.' Every time [we meet], our Western partners want to have so-called progress," said Prystayko, who was appointed as part of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's new government on August 29. "They are pushing us to make some progress. We hope they are equally pushing the Russians."
Russia and Ukraine exchanged 70 prisoners on September 7 and are discussing the possibility of swapping hundreds more. Talks in Minsk, Belarus, involving their negotiators have led to the withdrawal of forces in certain areas along the front line of the war between Kyiv's forces and Moscow-backed separatists, as well as a decline in fighting and the repair of some critical infrastructure that has eased conditions for civilians.
Their top diplomats are now working out when Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin can meet face-to-face with their German and French counterparts in what would be the first peace summit of the so-called Normandy Four since 2016.
The developments result in part from efforts by Zelenskiy, who took office in May, to break a deadlock and find areas where relations with Russia and with Ukrainians in the areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions held by the Russia-backed separatists can be improved in hopes of laying a foundation for a lasting peace.
But amid the developments, there is also concern in Kyiv that its backers in the West may see the current moment as the best or last real chance for peace in Ukraine and thus push its leadership to make painful compromises.
In his comments to RFE/RL, Prystayko said he understood that Western leaders "are tired of dealing" with Russia-Ukraine issues and are under pressure from some businesses to lift sanctions imposed on Moscow over its role in the war and its seizure of Crimea in 2014.
"Well, you can imagine how tired we are [in Ukraine]," he said.
In addition to the deaths, more than 30,000 people have been wounded, and some 2 million people have been displaced since the war broke out in April 2014. Swaths of Ukraine's easternmost Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which combined is about the size of the U.S. state of Maryland, remain under control of the separatists. All of this has hampered Ukraine's economy and efforts to reform its institutions.
The war has persisted in part because Moscow has failed to withdraw Russian forces fighting alongside separatist militants and turn over control of the national border in the conflict-plagued area to Ukraine, commitments outlined in a peace deal hashed out in Minsk in February 2015.
Speaking at the YES conference on September 13, John Tefft, who was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in 2009-13 and to Russia in 2014-17, warned Western countries against pushing Ukraine to give up any more than it has already. "It could lead to long-term harm of the security of this country," he said. "I think we should sit tight and let the Ukrainian government explore what they want to do."
Zelenskiy made establishing peace in eastern Ukraine a key promise in his hugely successful presidential and parliamentary election campaigns. Analysts say that will allow him more flexibility in peace talks than his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko.
But Zelenskiy must strike a delicate balance. If the inexperienced president is thought by Ukrainians to cede too much to Russia in any deal, it could cost him much political capital and stir unrest among more nationalist groups that view any concessions as an act of betrayal.
Prystayko insisted that Zelenskiy would not make such steep concessions. The novice president, a comic actor and TV star, "isn't tall but he's very strong physically, he trains a lot, it will be very hard to twist his arms," he said with a smile.
Unless it should fall through, Zelenskiy will be tested fairly soon at a Normandy Four meeting with the leaders of Russia, Germany, and France. The last such meeting of the group was in October 2016.
At a briefing with Slovak President Zuzana Caputova in Kyiv on September 16, Zelensky said he hoped France and Germany will support the position of Ukraine at a future Normandy format meeting. "I expect that European countries will support the Ukrainian position," he said. "I really want to believe in it [and] I am sure that this will be so at the negotiating table."
A date has not yet been set, although Prystayko said that Ukraine, Germany, and France had agreed to hold talks in Paris at the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron, on September 16. He said that Russia, however, declined that offer.
Putin's plans are not yet clear, and Prystayko said a meeting was unlikely before October.
Macron spoke with Putin by phone on September 8, and the French president's office said they agreed that the prisoner swap between Kyiv and Moscow had given momentum to talks on resolving the war in eastern Ukraine.
With Putin's approval ratings falling since his 2018 reelection and his political party taking a beating in a Moscow election on September 8, a senior Western diplomat in Kyiv also noted that it might be a good time for the Russian president to turn the country's attention elsewhere.
"He could use a win too," the diplomat said of Putin, adding that there were also economic incentives. "The armed conflict is costing [Moscow] a lot of money, and the sanctions we've put in place are hurting Russia's economy."
Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov said last week that Russia wanted to hold the meeting, but that three preconditions should be met beforehand. They include forces in eastern Ukraine disengaging in three key areas along the front line, Kyiv and Moscow agreeing on the terms of autonomy for the areas not under government control, and a preliminary agreement on what the summit's conclusions should be.
Suggesting a possible roadblock, Prystayko said that the sides remained at odds over the level of autonomy for the eastern regions and that the third precondition, which he learned about from the media, came as a surprise. He said that it had not been discussed during the nine-hour meeting between political advisers of the Normandy Four countries in Berlin on September 2.
Should the summit take place, one of the most controversial issues set to be discussed will likely be holding local elections in the regions under Russia-backed separatist control.
"Local elections should take place there, but they should be held under Ukrainian law," Zelenskiy told an audience at the YES conference on September 13.
On September 16, Zelenskiy said that "if we are discussing local elections in the temporarily occupied territory, we must understand that there must be a clear deadline before the elections for the withdrawal of all troops from the temporarily occupied territory."
The U.S. special envoy for negotiations on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Kurt Volker, said at YES that free and fair elections can "only take place in a free, fair and secure environment."
"That means that you can't have Russia and its proxies controlling that environment," he said.