As the US pushes forward with impeachment hearings into President Donald Trump and his dealings with Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader is set to sit down Monday with the man overseeing another conflict involving his country: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That five-year conflict, which began after Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and backed pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas, has claimed around 13,000 lives, and there has been no end in sight to the fighting.
Putin has kept his cards close ahead of the meeting. According to diplomatic and political observers, Kiev and Moscow are still far apart on what steps need to be taken to forge a more lasting peace. Zelensky will meet the leaders of France, Germany and Russia in Paris on Monday to discuss steps toward ending the struggle in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
The conflict has been largely forgotten, at least in the United States, amid the drama over impeachment unfolding in Washington. That political furor itself flows from a controversial move by the Trump administration to withhold aid as the US President and his allies pressured Zelensky to dig up dirt on a political rival. Trump has denied the allegations.
Allegations that Putin also interfered with the 2016 US presidential election may also play into the impeachment process.
Zelensky did make an important concession in advance of the meeting: He accepted a formula that calls for elections in separatist-held territories that would pave the way for a special, self-governing status in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.
But the devil, as always, is in the details. The Ukrainian side says it needs first to be fully in control of its own borders in order for those elections to happen. Right now, those parts of Ukraine’s eastern borders are under the control of Russian-backed separatists.
“My position is very simple: at the moment of the elections, when they are held in the temporarily occupied Donetsk and Luhansk, at [that] moment Ukraine must fully control our border,” Zelensky recently said. “I’m sure of that. Yes, the difficult situation is how to reach an agreement.”
Zelensky’s willingness to talk with Putin, who annexed Crimea in 2014 and who has supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, infuriates many Ukrainians, however.
On Sunday, several thousand people held a demonstration in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) to protest what they see as a potential “capitulation” to Putin.
Under a banner that read, “No elections in the Donbas until the implementation of security and de-occupation,” speakers warned of “red lines” that should not be crossed by Zelensky in the Paris talks.
“We do want the war to stop, but we don’t want peace at any price,” Inna Sovsun, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, told CNN. “We want peace not on Putin’s terms, but on Ukraine’s terms. Because we are the ones who were attacked. Ukraine was attacked by Putin.”
The Trump impeachment drama has also raised questions in Ukraine about whether US commitment to Kiev may waver. The US has provided military assistance to Ukraine, and Zelensky got a much-needed shot in the arm on Sunday, when he spoke by phone with Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Georgieva informed Zelensky that the IMF would unlock a three-year, $5.5 billion loan program to shore up Ukraine’s finances.
The loan is still subject to IMF management approval though, and the Ukrainian government will need to take some concrete steps – including judiciary reform and anti-corruption measures – to receive the aid. But news of the assistance package is welcome news ahead of the crucial meeting in Paris.
On Friday, the US embassy in Ukraine put out a statement in advance of the summit.
“We will stand with Ukraine as it fights the Russians, strengthens the rule of law, creates a healthier investment climate, reforms its defense sector, fights disinformation, and takes the steps necessary to ensure the final victory of those aligned on the side of justice and dignity,” the statement read.
Officially, at least, the US still stands behind Ukraine.