In First Meeting With Putin, Zelensky Plays to a Draw Despite a Bad Hand

By Andrew Higgins

The presidents of Ukraine and Russia met face-to-face for the first time, seeking to end the war in their border region. It appeared to be a draw, rather than the Putin domination some had feared.

From left: Presidents Volodymyr Zelensky, Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir V. Putin meeting in Paris on Monday with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
From left: Presidents Volodymyr Zelensky, Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir V. Putin meeting in Paris on Monday with Chancellor Angela Merkel.Credit...Pool photo by Christophe Petit Tesson
Andrew Higgins

PARIS — It had the makings of a singularly unequal contest: a former K.G.B. officer and seasoned master of no-holds-barred global intrigue versus a former comedian bereft of any experience in power politics and battered by his country’s bruising encounters with President Trump.

But the first face-to-face meeting on Monday between President Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s ruler for nearly 20 years, and Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, turned out to be less a walkover for Mr. Putin than a draw, with modest progress made on calming five and half years of war in eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Zelensky, who has been in office for just six months, said Russia and Ukraine had reached an agreement to exchange all prisoners by the end of the year and to fully implement a cease-fire first agreed to in 2015 but repeatedly broken.

“I would like to have seen more,” said Mr. Zelensky, speaking at a joint news conference late Monday in Paris with Mr. Putin and the leaders of France and Germany, who were refereeing the meeting.

Mr. Zelensky added that it “is vital for Ukraine to restore control of the entire length of its border” with Russia in eastern Ukraine, which is currently controlled by separatist forces backed by Moscow.

At the same news conference, Mr. Putin said relations with Ukraine, which had been in a deep freeze since a popular uprising toppled the pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, in Feb. 2014, were now in a “thaw.” But he added that much needed to be done to achieve a stable settlement.

He stressed Russia’s longstanding position that the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine, under the control of armed rebels supported by Moscow since 2014, should be given special status.

A peace deal reached in the Belarus capital of Minsk in February 2015 required Ukraine to change its laws and Constitution to provide for such a status but, like most elements of the Minsk agreement, this has not been put into effect.

President Emmanuel Macron of France expressed hope that the summit, the first high-level peace talks in three years, had broken years of stalemate, while acknowledging that peace was still not at hand in a war that has killed more than 13,000 combatants and civilians.

“We have not found a magic wand or a silver bullet, but we have relaunched the peace process,” he said. The Paris meeting, he added, was “a very positive step forward.”

The four leaders agreed to meet again in four months.

Mr. Zelensky, under mounting pressure at home from nationalists who accuse him of capitulating to Russia, arrived in Paris with limited room to maneuver and far fewer military or political resources to call on than Mr. Putin. His previous gestures of good will, notably the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the front line, have won no reciprocal steps by Russia or the rebels it supports in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

His position was further weakened by the absence of strong support from the United States, something that Ukraine had previously relied on as it struggles to hold its own on the battlefield against Russian troops — which the Kremlin has insisted are not serving soldiers but merely Russians “on vacation” — as well as armed separatists supported by Moscow.

The United States was never been formally involved in shaping or enacting the Minsk agreement, but under President Barack Obama it played a central role in “lassoing the various sides,” said Alina Polyakova, a fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Mr. Trump has been besieged by impeachment hearings focused on his dealings with Ukraine — specifically, an American delay in delivering promised military aid and the withholding of a much-coveted White House meeting for Mr. Zelensky — and by criticism of repeated foreign policy shifts that favor Mr. Putin.

Perhaps as a result, the American president has shown little inclination to get involved in the nitty-gritty details of settling the war, telling Mr. Zelensky when they met in New York in September: “I really hope you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem.”

Many Trump administration officials who advocated supporting Ukraine in its struggle against Russia have resigned or been sidelined. The State Department’s special envoy for Ukraine and its point man for settling the conflict in the east, Kurt D. Volker, resigned in September.

What Ms. Polyakova described as “U.S. absenteeism” has left the task of mediating a settlement in Europe’s only active war in the hands of Angela Merkel, Germany’s lame-duck chancellor, and Mr. Marcon, who has in recent months tilted to a more conciliatory approach toward Russia.

As if to illustrate the imbalance between Russia and Ukraine, at the Élysée Palace, where each president was saluted on Monday by a French honor guard, Mr. Zelensky arrived first in a modest gray Renault minivan, followed by Mr. Putin in an Aurus, a massive, Russian-made armored limousine. Mr. Putin, as he often does, arrived late, but only by a few minutes.

Both leaders had much to gain from the meeting.

Mr. Putin desperately wants the West to lift sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 over its annexation of Crimea and its sponsorship of the separatists. Mr. Zelensky, a political neophyte, won a landslide victory in Ukraine’s April presidential election on promises to end the fighting.

Mr. Zelensky also had much to lose, but unlike his predecessor, Petro O. Poroshenko, he avoided insulting Mr. Putin, whose relations with Ukraine’s previous president were so poisonous the two leaders stopped talking.

“There are a lot of questions we haven’t succeed to solve today, and it’s necessarily to be done in the future,” Mr. Zelensky said. “I am sure we will definitely do it, together.”

Rather than annexing the breakaway territory in the east, Russia has made clear that its aim is to keep Ukraine firmly under its influence, not integrated with the West economically, militarily or politically. Mr. Putin’s government has indicated that Ukraine could regain at least nominal sovereignty over the region, and control of its eastern border with Russia.

Moscow’s price for such a settlement includes Ukraine staying out of the European Union and NATO, and changing its Constitution to give more authority to regional governments — including those where pro-Russian forces are likely to govern.

Such an agreement would be seen by many Ukrainians as a capitulation to Mr. Putin and an infringement on their country’s independence. Yet there is no approach that commands anything resembling majority support in Ukraine — not making the concessions Russia is seeking, not continuing the war, and not ceding control of the territory.

But Mr. Zelensky made clear at the news conference that there could be no movement on the political and constitutional changes that Russia wants until security issues, including control of the border, had been settled. He also ruled out conceding to Russia’s previously insistent demand that Ukraine become a federation instead of a unitary state. This, he said, will never happen.

The Minsk agreements mapped out steps to be taken by each side, including elections in rebel-held regions, the return to Ukrainian control of a now-porous border with Russia, greater autonomy for the separatist region, and the disarming of militant groups. But the plan left unclear their sequence, with Russia insisting that political steps come first, while Ukraine wants to begin with those involving security.

Worried that Mr. Zelensky might succumb to Mr. Putin’s powers of persuasion, as Mr. Trump did in Helsinki in July last year, three opposition groups in Ukraine issued a manifesto ahead of the Paris meeting drawing six “red lines” that should not be crossed. They demanded that Mr. Zelensky make no concessions to Mr. Putin on Ukraine’s “Euro-Atlantic” foreign policy, the status of eastern regions and the timing of elections in territory occupied by Russian-backed separatists.

Early Tuesday morning, protesters gathered near Mr. Zelensky’s office in the center of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, voicing relief that the Paris meeting had not ended in the “capitulation” they had feared.

Mr. Zelensky’s predecessor, Mr. Poroshenko, had urged Mr. Zelensky to “avoid meeting one on one with Putin,” who he said could never be trusted.

“Don’t trust Putin. Ever and in anything,” he said. “Putin manipulates everything: content, facts, figures, maps, emotions. He hates Ukraine and Ukrainians.”

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.