Zelenskiy and Putin face-to-face in Paris on Monday

Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a meeting with Donald Trump on the sidelines of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, New York, 25 September.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin will held on Monday their first face-to-face meeting, participating in Normandy format summit in Paris.

More than five years of fighting in eastern Ukraine between government troops and Moscow-backed separatists has killed more than 14,000 people, and a cease-fire has remained elusive. While Zelenskiy has made ending the conflict a priority, the political novice arrives at the table with the veteran Kremlin leader in what appears to be a less-advantageous position, news wires reported.

French President Emmanuel Macron, the host of the meeting, has made clear recently that he wants to re-engage with Russia and get back to doing business again after five years of sanctions imposed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Macron and the other mediator in the talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will be meeting Zelenskiy for the first time since it emerged that he criticized them in the July 25 phone call that has become the focus of an impeachment investigation against US President Donald Trump. A rough transcript of the call revealed him accusing Merkel and Macron of giving too little help to Ukraine. At one point, Zelenskiy tells Trump: “When I was speaking to Angela Merkel, she talks Ukraine, but she doesn’t do anything.”

Those, who support Ukraine’s sovereignty, fear that Zelenskiy might end up giving too many concessions to Putin. That could lead to a backlash from Ukrainians who strongly oppose any rapprochement with Russia. Taras Kuzio, a security expert and professor at National University of Kiev Mohyla Academy, said Zelenskiy has already weakened his own position by agreeing to the talks even though Russia insists Crimea is non-negotiable.

The talks are being organized in the so-called Normandy Format, which was launched soon after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its backing of the separatists in eastern Ukraine. The consultations had stalled since 2016 but have been revived following Zelenskiy’s election.

“There is a whole cocktail of economics and geopolitics that make the situation for Ukraine very difficult and is posing lot of challenges,” Bruno Lete, a security expert at the German Marshal Fund of the US, told AP. “But it’s critical that Europeans and the US support Ukraine,” he argued. “Without peace and stability in Ukraine, there will never be peace and stability in Europe.”

The biggest challenge for Kiev probably comes from France itself, with Macron speaking recently of the “brain death” of NATO because of a lack of coordination and leadership from Washington and also saying he wants to re-engage with Russia. “It’s like telling Russia, ‘I will work with you and we’ll see about Ukraine,’” Lete said.

On Sunday, Pope Francis said he was praying for the talks to bring peace “to that territory and its population.”

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