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Macron welcomes Putin, Zelensky for Ukraine peace talks in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of a summit in Paris on December 9, 2019.
French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of a summit in Paris on December 9, 2019. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

After a three-year freeze in negotiations over the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, a meeting is set for Monday at France's Élysée Palace.

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The meeting will include Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuelle Macron, who will come together in the “Normandy format” – a reference to 2014 discussions among the countries that occurred on the margin of ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the D-Day landings.

Macron and Merkel share the goal of reviving peace talks on the only active armed conflict in Europe, which has caused more than 13,000 deaths in eastern Ukraine since 2014. Tomorrow’s gathering will be the first meeting between Zelensky, in his first year as Ukraine’s president, and Putin, who has led Russia for most of the past 20 years.

Negotiations in Paris will focus on the content of the 2014-15 Minsk peace agreement, which provided for an immediate ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the restoration of Kiev's control over the border with Russia, and increased autonomy for territories under separatist control.

The accord took shape during the year after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, which had been part of Ukraine since 1954. While the agreement led to a significant reduction in violence, its political components have never been implemented.

Since Zelensky’s election victory in April, a kind of détente has taken place between Kiev and Moscow, symbolised by an exchange of 70 prisoners, the withdrawal of belligerent troops from three small areas on the front line, and the surrender of Ukrainian warships seized by Russia.

A former actor who is new to politics, Zelensky’s profile contrasts with that of his predecessor and rival during the last presidential election, Petro Poroshenko, who favoured a hard line against Russia.

Vladimir Putin had conceded "cautious optimism" on the issue of pro-Russian separatist regions after his first contacts with his Ukrainian counterpart.

Yet, Zelensky's room to manoeuvre during Monday’s talks will be limited. Earlier in the week, he indicated that he initially wanted the Paris talks to focus on three points: a new exchange of prisoners, the implementation of a durable ceasefire, and the dismantling of any armed group "illegally" in Ukrainian territory – implicitly referring to pro-Russian separatists and their Russian sponsors.

Moscow’s priority, in contrast, is to maintain influence in Ukraine, insisting in particular on the issue of autonomy and the holding of elections in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Mindful of Russia’s aim, several thousand people rallied Sunday in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev to demand that the president defend the country's interests in this week's summit.

Many Ukrainians are concerned that Zelensky, a political novice, could be out-manoeuvered by Putin on Monday in Paris.

Macron’s chance to bring Russia closer to Europe

For Emmanuel Macron, the meeting will be a test case for his diplomatic initiative to "retie Russia to Europe", while relations between Moscow and the EU have been almost paralysed since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

He has bet on a risky strategy to deal directly with Putin, based on the assumption that Russia will one day understand that seeing Europe as a long-term strategic partner is in its interest.

In his widely analysed interview with The Economist magazine last month, in which Macron said that NATO was suffering a “brain death”, France’s leader also said that Russia could not prosper in isolation and would eventually have to opt for "a partnership project with Europe".

Macron notably described ex-KGB agent Putin as a "child of Saint Petersburg", the former Russian capital built by Peter the Great as a window onto the West.

His comments disturbed newer EU members, such as the Baltic States and, in particular, Poland, that want a tough line against their former master Russia. And they added to a raft of growing tensions between France and Germany.

Macron has adopted an increasingly assertive presence on the international stage in recent months, at a time when Germany is a less imposing diplomatic player as Merkel prepares to leave office.

If Putin and Zelensky fail to agree to concrete confidence-building steps during talks at the Élysée, it would be seen as a major blow to hopes for peace and also to Macron's personal prestige.

The summit will take place amid the continued transport strike in France, which will be buoyed when members of various public sector unions return to the streets for a second mass protest on Tuesday, after last Thursday’s action saw hundreds of thousands of participants throughout France.

Michel Duclos, a senior fellow at the Institut Montaigne, a French think tank, said that Macron “is already very isolated. And if he obtains nothing on Ukraine he is going to be even more isolated".

Quoted by AFP, Konstantin Kalachev, director of the Political Experts Group in Moscow, nevertheless considers that "it would be naive to think that Emmanuel Macron could exert any influence whatsoever on Vladimir Putin" in order to bring Russia and the EU closer together. "There is only one person who can influence President Putin," he continued. "And that is President Putin himself."

This article was translated from the original in French.

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