Ukraine: Paris talks with Russia aim to end eastern conflict

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meets with servicemen while visiting the Donetsk region
Ukraine’s president, here visiting troops on the frontline on Friday, is seen by critics as a political novice

The leaders of Russia and Ukraine will hold their first face-to-face talks in an attempt to tackle five and a half years of conflict in east Ukraine.

More than 13,000 people have died in fighting between government forces and rebels backed by Russia.

Now there is hope of a breakthrough after Ukraine withdrew from three areas and accepted a series of conditions.

President Volodymyr Zelensky will join Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Paris, along with the leaders of France and Germany.

Elected with a landslide earlier this year Mr Zelensky built his improbable campaign around bringing peace to eastern Ukraine.

Mr Zelensky’s strategy since has focused on trying to restart talks with Moscow. But for that to happen he has had to agree to Russia’s conditions and that has triggered some angry reactions among his opponents.

A woman holds a sign at a protest in Kyiv reading "no capitulation" in Ukrainian
Image captionOn Sunday, thousands of people held a protest in Kyiv – the sign reads “no capitulation”

Ukraine’s military has, at Russia’s insistence, pulled back in three areas on the front line: Stanytsia Luhansk, Petrivske, and here at Zolote.

Tough orders for soldiers at the front

To reach the new Ukrainian army position at Zolote you have to clamber through freshly dug trenches. A month earlier it was just a field.

Now, the machine-gun position is being manned by Private Oleksiy Kravchenko, who could just about see his old position in the distance. It’s a line of trees.

Private Oleksiy Kravchenko manning a machine gun near Zolote
Image captionPrivate Oleksiy Kravchenko gazing out at his old position

My interview with Private Kravchenko at Zolote gets off to a difficult start.

Unit commander Ruslan Sulymenko has already complained off camera about my “provocative questions”. His nervousness is part of the Ukrainian army adjusting to a new reality.

As a soldier it must be very difficult to receive an order to pull back, I suggest.

“Just say it was difficult physically,” the commander suggests from the shadows.

Map of eastern Ukraine

The private’s response was reserved.

“It wasn’t that hard work physically,” he says. “But in terms of our morale it was tough as so much effort had been put in to getting and maintaining those positions.”

For his commander it was too much. “Don’t use that bit,” he instructs us before continuing our trudging tour around the trenches.

Ukrainian troops digging a trench at Zolote
Image captionUkrainian troops have pulled back near Stanytsia Luhansk, Petrivske, and here at Zolote

Russia has been arming, funding and many would say directly controlling the rebels.

After years of doggedly and defiantly holding the line in the face of Russian aggression these soldiers have been given new orders.

On paper the one-kilometre withdrawal applies equally to both sides but in practice it has disproportionately affected Ukrainian positions.

Ukraine confronted by difficult road-map

President Zelensky has also had to accept what is known as the Steinmeier formula. It’s complicated and contested stuff.

Effectively it is an attempt to sequence implementation of the Minsk peace agreements, signed in 2014 and 2015 at the height of the fighting.

Pro-Russian militants march during the forces disengagement near the Petrivske village, Ukraine, 09 November 2019
Image captionRussian-backed rebels control large areas of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions

The Steinmeier formula states that immediately after elections are held in rebel areas, provided they are judged fair by monitors, they are given “special status” and a form of autonomy under the Ukrainian constitution.

The key contested issues are at what point Russian-backed forces leave, and at what moment the Ukrainian authorities regain control of the border, which now separates rebel territory from Russia, and can prevent more weapons coming in.

Why Ukraine has big reservations

At the heart of Ukrainian concerns is that they grant special status to the rebel areas of Luhansk and Donetsk and get nothing in return; that Russia “manages” elections so its candidates win, continues its military presence, and refuses to hand over control of the border.

The combination of the disengagement, Steinmeier and President Zelensky’s evident keenness to strike a deal have triggered a vocal reaction.

There have been demonstrations in the capital Kyiv, and President Zelensky’s opponents have issued statements listing “red lines” that the president should not cross.

Protests in Kiev against the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces in the east
Image captionPresident Zelensky’s efforts have sparked demonstrations in Ukraine

There is also a sense that President Zelensky, just six months into a five-year term, is in a hurry to cut a deal. Though his ratings remain high, they’ve started to fall.

Among some diplomats there’s also alarm at what some see as Mr Zelensky’s naive, overly trusting approach to negotiating with President Putin.

“I think his desire to establish a quick peace may be accepted by Putin as a weakness to use against him,” Ukraine’s well-regarded former deputy foreign minister, Olena Zerkal, told me.

“I don’t believe in good faith in respect to Russia and that’s why I have no intention to be part of it.”

Ms Zerkal tendered her resignation in protest and last week it was accepted by the cabinet of ministers.

Tangible signs of progress

In Zolote the streets are quiet: in part because it’s cold, in part because those people who could escape the front line have done so.

We stop at the local shop where Viktor is overseeing things. He used to live inside what is now rebel territory and owned four shops, a bakery and some agricultural land.

Shop owner Viktor speaking to the BBC in front of a bar
Image captionShop owner Viktor is furious at the idea of Ukrainian forces pulling back

Forced to flee by the rebels, he lost his businesses and has been sleeping on the couch of his only remaining shop. He fumes at the idea that it is Ukraine making the concessions.

“They’re the ones who should retreat.” he tells me. “This is our territory. They should go back to the other side of the Russian border.”

They may not mean much to Viktor but there have already been several dividends from President Zelensky’s new approach.

September saw a major prisoner swap, with all of Ukraine’s most high profile detainees sent home.

Then last month three naval ships Russia captured in the Kerch Strait were returned.

Media captionWhen Russia returned Ukraine’s naval vessels President Zelensky said any missing items would have to be handed back

On the ground the most tangible sign of progress is the bridge at Stanytsia Luhanska.

It’s the only crossing point between the self-declared rebel republic of Luhansk and Ukrainian government territory and was badly damaged in fighting in 2015.

The sick and elderly crossing the bridge in eastern Ukraine, with the help of medics
Image captionIt is now easier for the sick and elderly to cross over into government territory

Crossing became long and tortuous for the thousands of old people who had to go into government territory to pick up their pensions.

After disengagement in the summer and then re-building work, President Zelensky was there two weeks ago to reopen the re-engineered bridge.

“Tanks will not be able to pass over the bridge as it is too narrow. But an ambulance can easily pass over it,” he said in a ceremony broadcast on his Facebook page.

Little hope of peace

The bridge is now much easier for the miserable procession of wheelchairs, the elderly and their helpers to use.

Among them is Tamara Nikolaevna, 69, who has just picked up her pension.

Tamara has family fighting on both the Ukrainian army and rebel sides and, for her, peace seems a very distant prospect. She cannot imagine her relatives sitting around a table, let alone shaking hands.

“They all think they’re defending a country,” she says with a shake of her head.

As for the two presidents, it is clear who she prefers.

“We love Putin,” she replies without hesitation. “Zelensky smiles but in politics he’s a clown.”

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