Five years after Kremlin-backed separatists seized power in Ukraine's Donbas region, leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine will meet in Paris December 9 in a bid to revive efforts for a peaceful resolution to a conflict that's left more than 13,000 civilians and combatants dead and 30,000 wounded.
Hopes of a possible breakthrough had been boosted by recent withdrawals of rival troops from some key frontline positions and a prisoner exchange between the Russians and Ukrainians. France's Emmanuel Macron, who is hosting the Paris talks, the first direct negotiations in three years over the Donbas, is keen to break the impasse and so, too, is Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The 41-year-old Zelenskiy pulled off a landslide election win earlier this year over incumbent Petro Poroshenko by promising a fresh political start for Ukraine and pledging to end the conflict in the Donbas within 12 months.
But there's mounting anxiety in Ukraine that the rookie president, a former television comedian, will be be out-maneuvered in the Paris talks by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has since the conflict broke out only agreed to stuttering talks and at times his position appeared to be stronger than Kyiv's.
And there are fears Zelenskiy will be pressured into giving too much away to secure peace by the Western Europeans, especially Macron, who's keen to end Russia's isolation imposed by the West for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its fomenting of separatism in the Donbas.
Ukraine's leader has advertised his high expectations for tangible outcomes from the historic meeting, saying Friday in a television interview that he's eying at the very least the release of more Ukrainian prisoners and a detailed plan for enforcing a cease-fire in the Donbas.
"I want to return with concrete results," he said, arriving for the interview dressed in army green camouflage and after visiting Donbas front-lines.
The meeting in Paris Monday will be Zelenskiy's first face-to-face meeting with President Putin, though the pair spoke by phone in July about the release of Ukrainian sailors held by Russia.
Monday's Paris meeting, though, comes amid escalating tensions between Berlin and Moscow over a suspected Kremlin-sponsored assassination of a former Chechen rebel fighter in the German capital as well as the exposing by European intelligence services of a Russian military intelligence hit-squad based in the French Alps.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is being urged by her compatriots to confront President Putin in Paris during the talks over the suspected Kremlin-ordered slaying of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, who was shot twice in the head at close range at the end of August in Berlin's famous Little Tiergarten Park, near the German Interior Ministry.
The prime suspect, a 54-year-old Russian, Vadim Krasikov, was arrested minutes after the brazen shooting and is suspected of having entered Germany with a false passport issued by Germany's FSB intelligence agency. The German government last week pointed the finger of blame firmly at Moscow for the killing and expelled two Berlin-based Russian diplomats which it said were agents with Russia's GRU military intelligence service.
Merkel has so far been cautious in her comments about the killing, confining them to accusing Moscow of stonewalling the German probe into the assassination — one in a series of alleged Kremlin-linked killings and attempted slayings in the past few years in European countries.
With the Berlin shooting as a backdrop to the Paris talks, there's increasing skepticism that a major breakthrough will be secured and some Zelenskiy critics warn any progress that's made will likely be false and will soon fall away. They argue too much has already been given away in a pre-summit peace plan which mandates local elections in the Russian-controlled areas of Donbas followed by special, self-governing status for the region.
And they say in the run-up to the Paris talks it has been Ukraine that's been fulfilling its obligations readily when it comes to disengagement of forces in Donbas while Russia-backed separatists have continued to violate a ceasefire agreement on a daily basis. On Friday there were 14 separatist attacks in which two Ukrainian soldiers were wounded, according to European monitors.
Zelenskiy's peace plans
Ukrainians are divided on the current peace plan. A recent poll by a Ukrainian think tank, the Razumkov Center, found 59 percent of Ukrainians are against plans for an amnesty for the separatists and 56 percent are opposed to granting special self-governing status for the Donbas. Protests against President Zelenskiy's peace plans have attracted tens of thousands. Other polls have suggested a majority back Zelenskiy's search for an end to the conflict and surveys suggest most Ukrainians are eager to see an end to the war.
The risks are high for Monday's meeting, say analysts. "The summit to resolve the Ukraine conflict may provide some diplomatic opportunities, but could also come at a high strategic price," warns Neil Melvin, director international security studies at Britain's Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defense think tank.
"Zelenskiy has faced criticism from Ukrainian mass media, civil society, war veterans and nationalists that he is too eager to meet President Putin and to acquiesce to Russia's conditions," says Melvin.
He adds, "Zelenskiy's apparent willingness to discuss the issues of elections and status before a real cease-fire has been put in place and Russia-backed forces withdrawn, and while Ukraine has yet to regain control of its border, has attracted particular criticism. Zelenskiy has been accused of lacking a thought-through concept of how to end the war without establishing Donbas as a Russian proxy within Ukraine."
Adrian Karatnycky, an analyst at the Atlantic Council, a U.S. research group, remains skeptical, warning that Putin's aim "is to create a Russian enclave inside Ukraine." He believes "Putin wants either to dominate or dismember Ukraine. A peace deal will do neither. And when his popularity drops, he needs external foes. So, maybe I'm missing something, but I do not see a peace deal for a country which Russia's president believes is part of the Russian people."
Pavlo Klimkin, who served as Ukraine's foreign secretary until recently, told Britain's Independent newspaper Sunday that Zelenskiy had "failed to appreciate Putin's long-term strategic goals" and has agreed too easily Moscow's terms for the summit. "Zelenskiy somehow thinks that he will win him [Putin] over with his charisma, which is incredibly naive," Klimkin said.
President Zelenskiy's says he's realistic about the negotiations and will focus on a complete exchange of prisoners held by both sides, a cease-fire along the 250-mile frontline and preparations for elections in the Donbas held under Ukrainian law and only after a full withdrawal of military forces.
He has also sought to dispel fears Friday that he'll be pressured by France or Germany or the U.S. to give too much away. "When representatives of empires are sitting at the table, I really do not want us to be the dish served to these big bosses. I want us to sit at this table too and to be accepted as an equal, independent, strong country," said Zelenskiy