Zelensky Risks Giving Ukraine Away After First Meeting with Putin

After over five years of fighting in eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin finally found himself at a table with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky. Putin last met a Ukrainian leader three years ago during the administration of Petro Poroshenko. Unlike Poroshenko, Zelensky does not have a background rooted in politics, having only been president for seven months, and therefore bears less animosity toward Moscow. 

Putin and Zelensky met in Paris at a summit hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At the heart of the meeting was how to move forward following years of Russian-instigated civil unrest. By provoking and arming separatists in Ukraine, Putin has destabilized the state since he decided to annex Crimea in March 2014. 

For Zelensky, the ultimate goal is to return control of the eastern part of his nation from separatists and, in brief, to simply restore order. In order to secure it, he is willing to implement the 2015 Minsk II peace agreement, which is everything that Moscow could want, so naturally, Putin was predisposed to accept its implementation as a win from the Paris summit.

The Minsk II deal, as the name implies, was the second attempt at forging peace between the two states after the Minsk Protocol failed the previous year. Militarily, the components of the deal include a complete ceasefire, pull-out of heavy weapons, prisoner exchange, disarmament of rebel militias, and ceasefire monitoring. 

Those points are solid and mostly expected. Zelensky said both parties agreed to a 100-per cent implementation of the Minsk II agreement and a prisoner exchange will take place before the end of 2019. However, Zelensky’s acceptance of the deal includes creating a special status for the eastern districts of Donetsk and Luhansk. This caveat carved into the original Minsk Protocol and carried over into Minsk II is a differentiating factor between how the two nations will end their spat. Compared to Ukraine, Russia is essentially giving up nothing in the deal aside from pulling out its forces. 

In return, it gets to dictate Ukrainian constitutional reform to the extent of compelling the creation of special districts. In this manner, Moscow gains control, at least in part, of Ukraine internal affairs with the establishment of special, Russian-favored districts.

“I would like to have seen more,” said Mr Zelensky, speaking at a joint news conference following the summit. Of course, he would like to have seen more – what has Russia given as part of the deal? Its assurance that it won’t annex another chunk of Ukraine or fight for control of more districts in the future? 

To his credit, Zelensky was not part of the group that ironed out the Minsk agreement, so he was working in part with what had been handed down to him. However, it should have been evident to Merkel, who was a member of the 2014 group that drafted Minsk, how one-sided the arrangement was. To the casual observer, it would appear that they bought off Putin instead of fighting for Ukraine’s sovereignty, and they said nothing about the illegal annexation of Crimea, which makes the entire situation even more strange. 

Zelensky is taking fire from his people for not doing more and giving in to Putin’s demands too easily, and it is easy to see why they are frustrated. Poroshenko could not negotiate a fair deal and spent half a decade in a stalemate. Now all Zelensky could do was fall back on Poroshenko’s agreement, which was terrible enough that it was never implemented. On his own, Zelensky has tried to appease Putin by removing Ukrainian troops from the frontline, but Moscow did not do the same, signalling who is really in control of the situation. 

Control of Ukraine’s border with Russia was the only facet of the deal Zelensky pressed Putin on. Before political components are implemented, Zelensky’s government must have full power of its border. While this is a condition of Minsk II, Putin argued the other conditions should be satisfied first. The text of the agreement leaves the order of the steps ambiguous.

The group concluded the meeting with a resolution to meet again in four months.

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

The crisis demanded attention so Zelensky working on the issue and meeting with Putin is part of the way forward. However, Ukraine has everything to lose when dealing with Moscow and if the Minsk II agreement is held to the letter, it has already given into Putin.