MOSCOW -- Russia and Ukraine will hold peace talks at a summit in Paris on Monday, the first time in three years there have been high-level talks between the two countries focused on ending the war in eastern Ukraine.
The talks are taking place in the so-called "Normandy Format," with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angel Merkel mediating the negotiations. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will meet for the first time at the summit.
The Normandy group has not been held since October 2016, a reflection of how efforts to end the war have stalled, with the conflict essentially unchanged for years as soldiers and civilians continue to be killed. The war began after Russian annexed Crimea in 2014 and then seized control of two large eastern regions of Ukraine using pro-Russian separatists as proxies. Since then, 13,000 people -- about a quarter of them civilians -- have been killed more than 2 million displaced, according to the U.N.
Major fighting in eastern Ukraine has been halted since February 2015 when the sides accepted the so-called "Minsk Agreements." But shellings and exchanges of fire along the front line have never fully stopped as the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed rebels are dug into their trenches.
The summit is an effort to break the bloody stalemate and is as a result of a push by Zelenskiy, who won a landslide election in part on a pledge to end the war. While he has had to walk a tightrope after being thrust into the impeachment scandal around President Donald Trump, finishing the war has been Zelenskiy’s top priority since the election. France’s Macron has also pushed for talks -- eager for a diplomatic win with Russia.
That the summit is taking place at all is significant. The decision to meet reflects that perhaps both Russia and Ukraine are willing to bring the fighting to a complete stop.
Ahead of the meeting, though, few believe a major breakthrough toward resolving the conflict is likely. Officials in Kyiv, Moscow and Donbass -- the traditional name for the region of eastern Ukraine -- have all recently downplayed expectations.
While Ukraine has urged ending the war, most observers have said it seems impossible the sides will be able to reconcile competing objectives.
To clear a path to the summit, Ukraine and the Russian-controlled rebels did take significant steps. Driven mostly by Zelenskiy, the sides traded of dozens of prisoners, including some of the most high-profile political prisoners held by Russia. Ukraine and then the rebels pulled troops back from front-line areas around three key towns.
But it is unclear where the two sides go after those concessions to actually bring the war to its conclusion.
One of the Kremlin’s conditions for holding the summit was that Ukraine commit to the "Steinmeier Formula." Named after Germany’s former foreign minister who proposed it, the formula holds that elections be held in the separatist regions and then Ukraine would regain control of the territory.
The formula is favored by Moscow and has been highly controversial in Ukraine, because it would mean holding elections while Russia controlled the rebel areas and Russia would therefore be able to dictate the vote.
The dilemma is at the heart of what is preventing Ukraine and Russia from resolving the war. Russia’s objective has been for Ukraine to reincorporate the separatist regions as part of a federation, giving them broad autonomy. In practice, that would mean leaving two Russian puppet regions in Ukraine, giving Moscow a permanent lever to block the country from joining NATO or the European Union.
That situation has been unacceptable to Kyiv and there is no sign it isn’t still. Zelenskiy, having signed onto the Steinmeier Formula in October in order to obtain the summit, immediately said elections would not be held until Ukraine regains control of its border with Russia in the rebel territories. Russia, meanwhile, has insisted on elections first.
Kremlin officials and Zelenskiy himself in the past two weeks have both said publicly they believe the difference will likely not be resolved in Paris. Zelenskiy has said he also wants to discuss Crimea, which the Kremlin has said is non-negotiable.
"On the whole Russia and Ukraine are going to the summit in Paris with such contrary positions on keys aspects of resolving [the conflict], that serious progress in the 'Normandy Format' should not be expected. Not one of the sides has taken the decision to make strategic concessions on the status of Donbass. And they don’t have a plan B, apart from freezing the conflict as a result of the troop withdrawal," Vladimir Frolov, an analyst and former Russian diplomat, wrote in the Russian magazine, Republic.
With a final resolution to conflict looking deadlocked, the sides instead appear to have been preparing some smaller deals that they can present as results of the summit. Another large prisoner exchange is possible. Both sides have also seemed to be gathering further bargaining chips. Ukraine detained a Russian politician on Wednesday, while Russia’s FSB security service arrested a woman in Crimea it accused of spying for Ukraine two weeks ago. On Saturday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev threatened Russia and Ukraine will not be able to agree on gas transit.
Macron’s office has said it believes the summit can help consolidate a ceasefire, define new areas of disengagement and allow for a new prisoner exchange.
An official at the Elysée Palace briefed reporters this week and said Macron thinks the summit can achieve the elections in the order proposed by the Steinmeier Formula and that Ukraine will take full control of its territory, except Crimea, the day after the vote.
Ukrainian officials have publicly said if the summit shows Russia is unwilling to make any genuine steps toward a final end to the conflict, they will essentially abandon the rebel areas as a lost cause and leave them to Russia.
Andriy Yermak, a top aide of Zelenskiy, told an audience at a Chatham House event in London this week that if Ukraine finds Russia will not take steps toward fulfilling the Minsk agreements we’ll be "building a wall" around Donbass.
In practice though it will be difficult to simply write off the conflict. It’s also unclear what it would mean for the hundreds of thousands of people Ukraine currently still provides pensions and social payments to in the rebel zones.
Some Ukrainian officials have privately said the Zelenskiy administration’s position is that it must maximally meet its side of the Minsk conditions to show its Western partners it is willing to end the war and force Moscow to show it isn’t.
Some observers in Ukraine are concerned Zelenskiy's inexperienced team -- looking to make a deal -- will inadvertently concede too much to Russia. At home, Zelenskiy’s acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula prompted a protest by 10,000 people in Kyiv and threats from nationalist groups.
Some also worry that Ukraine might find itself pressured into concessions by Macron and Merkel, who are both eager to improve relations with Russia and to ease some sanctions on it.
"The risk is real that in order for the Paris summit to become a 'success' from a Franco-German perspective, Mr. Zelensky will come under great pressure to be 'reasonable' and to agree to compromises that will lead to 'lasting peace,'" Willem Aldershoff, a former head of unit at the European Commission, wrote in an op-ed in The Financial Times on Saturday. In practice, he wrote that might mean holding elections without Ukraine regaining control of its border or Russian and separatist troops withdrawing.
In the long-term, a freeze of the conflict seems like the most likely outcome, with the rebel regions essentially left as unrecognized states controlled by Moscow. This has been the case in Georgia following Russia’s invasion in 2008, as well as Moldova.
"They don’t have a plan B, apart from freezing the conflict as a result of the troop withdrawal," Frolov, the former Russian diplomat, wrote in Republic.