Updated: Dec 16, 2019
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The meeting in Paris, which became Ukraine's most important foreign policy event of the year and at the same time a major test for the new Ukrainian president, Vladimir Zelensky, was perceived very differently before its holding. The president himself and his supporters assured that this meeting is a chance to get closer to resolving the conflict in the Donbass. That is why, according to the President, Kyiv went to fulfill Moscow's demands ‒ that Zelensky should have an opportunity to see Putin and end the war.
Opponents of the president, on the contrary, feared that the Paris summit was a step towards Ukraine's surrender to Russia, and Zelensky's concessions saw the start of that surrender. That is why the public Movement for the Resistance to Capitulation was created, there were numerous protests on Independence Square and other streets and squares throughout the country, and on the eve of Zelensky's visit, protesters were found right near his residence.
Few understood that the essence of Zelensky's desire to meet Putin was explained by the fact that his victory in the 2019 presidential election was the political amateurism of the new head of state.
Zelensky could honestly believe that the war was going on simply because his predecessor could not "humanly" talk to the Russian president, that the leadership of Ukraine had its motives for continuing the conflict ‒ the same "enrichment on the war." And that if he meets Putin, he will make a positive impression on him and the war will end.
It may seem naive, unusual, but didn't the choice of Ukrainian citizens in 2019 also seem naive and unusual? In this sense, we can say that Vladimir Zelensky’s ordinary ideas about politics are fully shared by the majority of his electorate. And that the Ukrainian president’s surrounding, who negotiated in Moscow and European capitals, worked all these months to ensure the meeting between Zelensky and Putin. The main purpose was not to make concessions to the Kremlin, but to "lure" Putin to Paris. And there Zelensky would "charm" the Russian president and explain everything to him.
The surrounding of the President of Ukraine as well as Western leaders, each of whom had their own reasons in holding a meeting in the "Norman format" in Paris – managed to achieve this difficult task. Putin arrived in Paris, though earlier he said that the summit would be possible only if concrete results were achieved before it was held.
Putin arrived, but the result, which Zelensky hoped, was not achieved. And not even because of the fault of the Ukrainian president, but for the simple reason that politics is not some magic or a story about what is really going on. This is primarily a coincidence of interests. And "chemistry" between statesmen arises primarily when these interests coincide.
Zelensky and Putin's interests are fundamentally different. Zelensky wants to end the war in the Donbas and restore the territorial integrity of his country. Putin is interested in getting Ukraine back into the sphere of Russian influence and becoming a part of the "union state", which these days he is trying to impose on Belarussian President Lukashenko. Zelensky expects that elections in the Donbass will take place after Ukraine has been given control of its borders. Putin does not want to even hear this and demands from Kiev the exact implementation of the Minsk agreements, which stated that the elections come first and then control over borders. Zelensky talks about the possibility of changing the Minsk agreements. Putin denies it. Zelensky is ready to ensure self-government of the occupied Donetsk and Lugansk regions and to deepen decentralization. Putin is not going to give up on so called "people's republics". Zelensky is interested in maintaining transit of Russian gas through Ukrainian system. Putin seeks to impose on Zelensky the purchase of Russian gas and abandonment of lawsuits against Gazprom in international arbitration. So, what to negotiate here?
That is why the Paris meeting came to an end almost as much as the previous Summit of Four in Berlin in 2016 ‒ that is, without any tangible results. Then, too, agreed on the pool out of troops in three pilot points ‒ just that this pull out became possible only three years later. They also discussed the exchange of the hostages, but it took a year to secure the exchange. Then they also talked about the need for a ceasefire. But most importantly ‒ then, in 2016, Vladimir Putin was finally convinced that he would not make any obvious concessions from Petro Poroshenko. Then he completely lost any interest in communicating with the then Ukrainian president.
It is quite possible that no such conclusion has been made regarding Zelensky, that the Kremlin is still counting on concessions on the part of the current Ukrainian leader. After all, with Poroshenko at first there was not one but several meetings. Then we could expect one more "Normandy summit". And maybe not one. But with the same result as this time. The conflict will continue.
It will continue until Moscow is convinced that couldn’t swallow Ukrainian statehood, that Ukraine will no longer be either part of Russia, or part of the "union state", or part of the Russian sphere of influence. Until this understanding is formed ‒ and it is a long and painful process ‒ Ukraine is simply doomed to conflict with this neighboring country, to new shelling, attempts to seize territory and economic blackmail. The Ukrainians obviously do not want to live in such world of long and persistent opposition ‒ but they simply have no other choice. Because the alternative is the liquidation of the Ukrainian state and its integration into Russia. And this is also not acceptable for the huge part of the society that is ready to defend the Ukrainian state. Defend against both, the Kremlin and the local collaborators.
And no charm of any Ukrainian president will change this situation.
Vitaliy Portnykov is one of the most popular Ukrainian journalists, he has written columns for a number of Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian, Polish, Israeli, Latvian printed and online publications.
He has worked with “Radio Liberty” since 1991, and is the founder and host of the “Politclub” television program that airs on "Espresso".
We are proud to have Mr. Portnykov as a contributor of our newspaper "Hromada" where his political analysis is published under the "Нотатки Портникова".