Since 2015, Ukrainian soldiers and Russia-backed separatists have continued to exchange fire along a front line that slices through eastern Ukraine, in a Dec. 9, 2019 story. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Peace in sight? Paris summit seeks solution for Ukraine war

PARIS — A long-awaited summit in Paris on Monday aims to find a way to end the war in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that after five years and 14,000 lives lost has emboldened the Kremlin and reshaped European geopolitics.

The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France are holding a series of meetings at the Elysee presidential palace to try to revive a 2015 peace deal that’s been largely ignored. In the years since, Ukrainian soldiers and Russia-backed separatists have continued to exchange fire across World War I-style trenches along a front line that slices through eastern Ukraine.

A major breakthrough at the summit is unlikely, and Ukrainian protesters in Kyiv are heaping pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy not to surrender too much to Russian President Vladimir Putin at their first face-to-face meeting.

Whatever happens, the summit is the biggest test yet for Zelenskiy, a comic actor and political novice who won the presidency this year in a landslide — partly on promises to end the war.

While Zelenskiy still enjoys broad public support, he has been embarrassed by the scandal around his discussions with U.S. President Donald Trump that unleashed an impeachment inquiry. The U.S. is an important military backer for Ukraine, which is hugely out-gunned by Russia.

Some Ukrainians fear Zelenskiy will be out-manoeuvred by Putin in Monday’s meeting. Around 100 opposition activists set up protest tents outside government buildings Monday in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Activists are offering free food in the tents and building a stage in front of Zelenskiy’s office, with banners reading “No to capitulation!”

“Russia started the war, and any negotiations with the aggressor elicit our suspicion and vigilance, especially when we’re being forced into peace on Russian terms,” one protester, 21-year-old student Igor Derbunov, told The Associated Press.

In front of the French presidential palace Monday, two protesters from the feminist group Femen, which originated in Ukraine, bared their breasts and shouted “Stop Putin Now!” They were quickly whisked away by police.

Russia wants to use the summit to increase pressure on Zelenskiy to fulfil the 2015 Minsk peace accord, which gives the rebel-held regions more autonomy in exchange for ending the fighting.

Zelenskiy wants to tweak the timeline laid out in the Minsk accord, which calls for Ukraine to be able to regain control of its border with Russia only after local elections are held in the separatist regions and the regions receive autonomous status. Zelenskiy says Ukraine must get control of its border first before local elections are held.

The Kremlin insists that’s not an option, and the separatists hope that Russia, France and Germany refuse Zelenskiy’s requests.

“There are expectations that three guarantors of the Minsk agreements will explain to Zelenskiy that the agreements can’t be revised,” Natalya Nikonorova, foreign minister of the separatists’ unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic, was quoted Monday in Russian daily Kommersant as saying.

French officials say potential changes to the timeline will be discussed Monday, but stressed that the summit is aimed at fulfilling the Minsk accord — not writing a new peace deal.

Germany and France helped to broker the Minsk accord, in hopes of ending a conflict on Europe’s eastern edge that has complicated relations with Russia, a powerful trading partner and diplomatic player.

But with progress stalled on the ground, the leaders haven’t met since 2016. Monday’s summit is the first involving Zelenskiy and Macron, who has sought to improve relations with Russia.

To pave the way for the talks in Paris, Ukraine and Russia struck a prisoner exchange deal in September and agreed on a troop pullback from two locations in eastern Ukraine. Russia has also released three Ukrainian navy ships seized a year ago.

Zelenskiy said before Monday’s talks that he hopes they will help achieve a lasting cease-fire, and that he hoped to negotiate a quick deal to exchange all prisoners held by the warring parties.

Russia denies providing troops and weapons to help the separatists, but has maintained political support. It argues that people in eastern Ukraine feel stronger cultural and linguistic ties with Russia than with Western-leaning Kyiv.

Russia’s interior minister announced Monday that around 125,000 residents of rebel-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine have been given Russian passports since April. Putin issued a decree in April allowing residents of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions to apply for Russian citizenship under a simplified procedure. The move was condemned in Kyiv as a new sign of Russian interference in Ukraine’s domestic affairs.

An end to the conflict in the region known as the Donbass could also lead to the eventual lifting of EU sanctions against Russia linked to the eastern Ukraine fighting, which the Kremlin and European businesses have pushed for. The EU and U.S. imposed separate sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

The EU is expected to extend sanctions this week by another six months. Arriving for meetings in Brussels on Monday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “At the moment I see no grounds to change anything in the European Union’s sanctions policy toward Russia in this matter. It would be good if we could get there at some point.”

“A solution to the question of Ukraine is one of the conditions for the European Union and Russia to develop better ties.” he said.

By The Associated Press

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