Putin, new Ukrainian leader Zelenskiy meet for first time

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine have met for the first time at a summit in Paris to try to find a way to end five years of fighting in eastern Ukraine

A major breakthrough is unlikely, and Ukrainian protesters in Kyiv are heaping pressure on their new leader not to surrender too much to Putin, who has been in office nearly 20 years.

But the fact that Putin and Zelenskiy met at all was a significant step after years of war. Putin and Zelenskiy faced each other across the table, flanked by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin and Zelenskiy later held a separate one-on-one meeting later, the Kremlin said.

Whatever happens, the summit is the biggest test yet for Zelenskiy, a comic actor and political novice who won the presidency this year in a landslide -- partly on promises to end the war.

While Zelenskiy still enjoys broad public support, he has been embarrassed by the scandal around his discussions with U.S. President Donald Trump that have unleashed an impeachment inquiry in Washington. The U.S. is an important military backer for Ukraine, which is hugely out-gunned by Russia.

While the U.S. was never part of this peace process, U.S. backing has strengthened Ukraine's overall negotiating position with Russia in the past. Now that support is increasingly in doubt, after the Trump administration froze military aid earlier this year and is increasingly focused on Trump's re-election bid. With U.S. influence waning around the world, many in Kyiv see one clear winner: Russia.

Some Ukrainians fear Zelenskiy will be out-maneuvered by Putin Several thousand protesters rallied in the Ukrainian capital Sunday to urge Zelenskiy not to make any concessions to Russia, and 100 opposition activists set up a tent camp outside his office with banners reading “No to capitulation!”

“Russia started the war, and any negotiations with the aggressor elicit our suspicion and vigilance, especially when we’re being forced into peace on Russian terms,” said 21-year-old student Igor Derbunov,

In front of the French presidential palace, two protesters from the feminist group Femen, which originated in Ukraine, bared their breasts and shouted “Stop Putin Now!” They were quickly whisked away by police.

Russia wants to use the summit to increase pressure on Zelenskiy to fulfill the 2015 Minsk peace accord, which promises wide autonomy to Ukraine's rebel-held regions.

French officials say potential changes to the timeline will be discussed but stressed the summit is aimed at fulfilling the Minsk accord, not writing a new peace deal.

Germany and France helped to broker the Minsk accord, in hopes of ending a conflict on Europe’s eastern edge that has complicated relations with Russia, a powerful trading partner and diplomatic player.

But with progress stalled, the leaders haven’t met since 2016. Monday’s summit is the first involving Zelenskiy and Macron, who has sought to improve relations with Russia.

To pave the way for the talks in Paris, Ukraine and Russia struck a prisoner exchange deal in September and agreed on a troop and heavy weapons pullback from two locations in eastern Ukraine. Russia has also released three Ukrainian navy ships that were seized a year ago.

Zelenskiy said he hopes they will help achieve a lasting cease-fire and a deal to exchange all prisoners held by the warring parties.

Russia denies providing troops and weapons to help the separatists, but has maintained political support and sent aid. It argues that people in eastern Ukraine feel stronger cultural and linguistic ties with Russia than with Western-leaning Kyiv.

Civilians in the war-ravaged region feel trapped amid regular exchanges of fire and the region's economic meltdown.

Antonina, a resident of the village of Mariinka near the front line, spoke with anguish about the endless conflict.

“People do not understand what is going on here in reality, what we are feeling and living through," she said, refusing to give her last name for personal security reasons. "Nobody is asking for our opinion, nobody is interested in it and nobody pities us.”

Russia’s interior minister announced Monday that about 125,000 residents of rebel-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine have been given Russian passports since April. Putin issued a decree allowing residents of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions to apply for Russian citizenship under a simplified procedure. The move was condemned in Kyiv as the latest sign of Russian interference in Ukraine's domestic affairs.

The Kremlin hopes that an end to the conflict could also lead to the eventual lifting of EU sanctions against Russia linked to the fighting, which European businesses have pushed for. The EU and U.S. imposed separate sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

The EU is expected to extend sanctions this week by another six months. Arriving for meetings in Brussels on Monday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “At the moment I see no grounds to change anything in the European Union’s sanctions policy toward Russia in this matter. It would be good if we could get there at some point.”


Karmanau reported from Kyiv. Sylvie Corbet and Angela Charlton in Paris, Inna Varenytsia in eastern Ukraine, Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.