Activists attend a rally in central Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. Several thousand people rallied Sunday in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv to demand that the president defend the country's interests in this week's summit with Russia, Germany and France on ending the war in eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Peace in sight? Paris summit seeks solution for Ukraine war

December 09, 2019 - 5:18 am

PARIS (AP) — A long-awaited summit in Paris on Monday is aiming to find a way to end the war in Ukraine, after five years and 14,000 lives lost in a conflict that 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 Palace to try to revive a 2015 peace deal that’s gone largely ignored, as Ukrainian soldiers and Russia-backed separatists continuing to exchange fire across World War I-style trenches along the front line slicing through eastern Ukraine.

A major breakthrough is unlikely, but whatever happens, the summit is the biggest test yet for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenski y, who won the presidency this year in a landslide -- partly on promises to end the war.

The summit notably includes the first face-to-face meeting between Zelenskiy, a comic actor and political novice, with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While Zelenskiy still enjoys broad public support, he has been embarrassed by the scandal around his discussions with U.S. President Donald Trump that has 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 surrender too much to Putin in Monday’s meetings, and several thousand people rallied Sunday on the iconic Maidan plaza in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv to demand that the president defend the country's interests. More protests are expected.

Russia wants to use the summit to increase pressure on Zelenskiy to fulfill 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 before local elections are held, instead.

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. The four countries’ leaders have held a series of meetings since 2014, starting with a summit in Normandy that launched what the French call the “Normandy format” peace process.

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 and pushed for the renewed talks, encouraged by Zelenskiy’s determination to end the war.

Ukraine and Russia struck a prisoner exchange deal in September and agreed on a troop pullback from two locations in eastern Ukraine as part of efforts to pave the way for the Paris talks. Russia has also released three Ukrainian navy ships it seized in a Black Sea incident a year ago.

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

An end to the conflict in the region known as the Donbass could also lead to an 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 Crimea.

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