Ukraine’s president hasn’t played a role this difficult since he starred on reality TV

In one of the closing episodes of the televised comedy drama, «Servant of the People,» the character played by Volodymyr Zelensky — an actor before he entered politics — delivers a humiliating public tongue-lashing to a delegation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He catches the group off guard by rejecting their harsh austerity measures on the basis that they will hurt the Ukrainian people.

On Monday, during the Normandy Four peace summit in Paris, Zelensky, now Ukraine’s president, will go up against a much more formidable foe, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders will discuss how to bring normalcy back to areas of Ukraine occupied by Russian-backed rebels. On the sidelines, the presidents of France and Germany will act as mediators.

The people of Ukraine will be watching closely, eager to see if the relatively untested Zelensky manages to avoid granting more Russian influence in the country and ekes out a deal that will finally bring peace to the east of Ukraine.

The summit will mark the first Normandy talks since October 2016, the first time Zelensky and Putin meet face-to-face and the first time in recent memory that a Ukrainian president goes into major diplomatic talks without the implicit backing of the White House.

The stakes could not be higher. At issue is the future of the sections of Donetsk and Luhansk that were occupied by Russian-backed rebels in the spring of 2014. Expectations are extremely low, but the goal of the Paris summit, called by French President Emmanuel Macron, is to find a lasting peace solution to a conflict that has claimed more than 14,000 lives, displaced millions and caused billions of dollars of damage.

What much of the world seems to have forgotten is that the Ukraine-Russia conflict is one of the deadliest in the world, causing Ukraine to be dependent on external food aid. UNICEF has described the 400-kilometer front-line (248 miles) as one of the most mine-contaminated places of the planet, estimating that it endangers about 220,000 children.

If Zelensky, who came into power earlier this year, signs onto a peace deal which is seen at home as capitulation to Russia, it could hasten the decline in his popularity ratings, shorten his political life and bring protesters out onto the streets. Already, thousands of people attended rallies in Kiev on Sunday, chanting such slogans as «No to capitulation.»

Zelensky is said to have told his staff that he does not wish to see any further public displays of discontent against his administration. Also hemming Zelensky in is a «red line» manifesto set by the three major Ukrainian opposition parties, which flatly rejects the granting of major concessions to Russia or its proxies in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s wish list

According to reports, Zelensky will be coming to Paris with low expectations. But his wish list includes another prisoner swap and delivery of some key elements of the 9-point Minsk agreement of 2014, which was aimed at bringing a lasting calm back to eastern Ukraine. That agreement called for a cease-fire, pullback of heavy weaponry and return of the Ukraine-Russia border back to Ukrainian control.

France and Germany are expected to push Ukraine to fully adopt the so-called Steinmeier Formula path to peace, which controversially calls for the granting of special status and local autonomy to the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine. But, on the eve of the Monday talks, Ukraine and Russia remain far apart on the sequencing of the plan: what comes first — disengagement and disarmament or elections?

Over the past five years, countless attempts at cease-fires have been attempted and failed. And according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), both sides continue to move heavy weaponry around — weaponry which should have been withdrawn a long time ago.

As for Putin, he comes into the talks with nothing to lose, but likely with the goal of retaining some leverage over Ukraine, which he still regards as a sphere of influence. «He (Putin) has much more flexibility — he has total control of Russian politics and he can sell literally anything he agrees in Paris,» writes British historian Timothy Ash.

Any chance at solidifying an agreement on Monday will depend on Normandy partners France and Germany bringing enormous pressure on Putin to end his war games in eastern Ukraine. But with Germany in a politically weakened state with the impending retirement of Angela Merkel and hungry for Russian natural gas, and with France eager to reset relations with the Kremlin, it is unlikely that Putin will be pushed to the wall.

Political will needed to end the Ukraine-Russia conflict

Ever since the fighting started in eastern Ukraine there’s been one thing absent that prevented peace: political will. And a key question remains: how can a main interlocutor of the Paris peace talks — Russia — sign onto a peace plan if it continues to deny being a party to the conflict?

However, if Putin is looking for an exit from the conflict — perhaps on the basis that it is no longer popular in Russia and is costing the country in the form of punishing sanctions and lives lost — then now is an ideal time to nudge him towards the exit ramp.

Russia, so far, has delivered an incalculable blow to Ukraine in terms of lives lost, damage to infrastructure and national pride. But the Kremlin has resisted delivering a knockout punch in the past knowing that Ukraine’s main benefactor, the United States, stands in the background. Now, that main backer is pretty much gone, pre-occupied with other matters such as impeachment, and with Trump having just humiliated Zelensky in front of the world by allegedly trying to shake him down for dirt on a political opponent.

By any calculation, Zelensky is not in a great position to enter talks to stop the bloodshed. He will need every ounce of strength to stand up to the Russian bear, avoid costly concessions and return home appearing victorious.
Wisely, Zelensky is keeping expectations for the Paris summit extremely low. As he told foreign journalists last week in a group interview: «People have to come to these meetings intending for nothing to happen.»

Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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