Zelensky-Putin talks: What should Ukrainian President watch out for
Both Ukraine and Russia started talking about the possibility of presidents of Ukraine and the Russian Federation, Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin, holding a bilateral meeting. However, the probability of such a meeting to be held in the near future remains extremely small.
Volodymyr Zelensky would have been interested in meeting with Vladimir Putin on the eve of parliamentary elections in Ukraine. This way, he would demonstrate that he is pro-active in foreign policy and is trying to find a compromise with Russia. And this, of course, would add votes to his political force. This way, Zelensky would prove that he is capable of defending national interests. Although it is clear at the moment that his team does not have a vision of further relations with Russia. We can judge about this from an interview with NSDC secretary Oleksandr Danyliuk, which contains several contradictory ideas. In particular, we understand that the reason for the war in Donbas is not the oppression of the Russian-speaking population, but the Kremlin's attempts to restore political control over Ukraine.
On the other hand, it is not entirely clear why Volodymyr Putin now needs such a meeting with the Ukrainian president. After all, Putin recently gained certain wins, in particular, he managed to secure the return of the Russian delegation to the PACE. First of all, it is a kind a PR victory for Putin, and secondly, it indicates a split in the views of Washington and the European capitals. The Germans and the French have been pressured by other Europeans to make a corresponding decision in the PACE, although Russia has done nothing in terms of fulfilling the demands that had been put forward over Ukraine and led to sanctions.
In addition, during the G20 summit, Putin held a friendly meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. During the conversation, they occasionally mentioned Ukraine, more precisely – Trump listened to Putin's version, why Ukrainian sailors have not been released yet, and why there is no progress in resolving the situation in Donbas.
A meeting with Zelensky would be interesting to Putin after the parliamentary elections in Ukraine
In general, a meeting with Zelensky would be interesting to Putin after the parliamentary elections in Ukraine – then he would already understand what opportunities would be available for influencing Ukrainian politics, given that the "fifth column" has all chances to get seats in the new parliament. And that's against the background of Viktor Medvedchuk taking destructive steps: negotiating with "LPR/DPR" puppets, consolidating media assets in Ukraine, and having long consolidated his business assets in Ukraine (like the gas market: it's not by accident that Russia recently decided to resume the export of liquefied natural gas to Ukraine, because it's Putin's crony Medvedchuk who's engaged).
Given all these facts, it makes no sense for Putin to meet Zelensky and give him additional points ahead of the election.
Another point: if this meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents is being planned, should it be bilateral or should a third party be involved?
Firstly, the Ukrainian expert community and those who attribute themselves to 25% [Poroshenko's supporters] are worried about Zelensky's weakness as a negotiator, concerned that he cannot be trusted to negotiate with Putin, because he can give up Ukraine's positions to Russia. I do not share that opinion. After all, we did not "lose the country" when Poroshenko was not reelected, of which his team warned voters so much. A meeting with Putin is primarily a matter of preparing for it. As for me, an interview with Danyliuk shows that such preparations have not yet been done.
However, I do not think that, if Zelensky and Putin meet, something catastrophic may occur, because the nuances on which Zelensky could theoretically lose in the negotiations depend from the parliament. For example, imagine that Zelensky at a meeting with Putin gives up all positions – what can he do when he returns to Kyiv? By his decrees, he can do nothing that Putin could seek: for example, to amend the Constitution, which would limit Ukraine's ability to join NATO (the president has already stated that he supports the course toward membership in the Alliance). Only the Verkhovna Rada can do this. The same applies to changes in the status of the language, and the autonomy of the now occupied parts of the Donbas. All this should go through parliament.
Secondly, the possibility of Zelensky and Putin holding talks with the participation of other parties – whether in the Normandy format or with the participation of Americans ("Geneva format" or tripartite negotiations) is another matter. If it's in the form of the four, then the main issue of such a meeting, of course, will be the end of the war. But, as for me, it would be wrong if, after all those good and correct words that Zelensky said during and after the election campaign, that is, that one cannot forget about Crimea, the issue of annexed territory would not be voiced at his meeting with Putin.
The U.S. president does not pay enough attention to the Ukrainian issue
There are also nuances about U.S. involvement. In particular, it is about Trump's desire to establish good relations with Putin, to solve his issues with Russia in order to get his hands unties in the direction of China, North Korea, and Iran. And this means that the U.S. president does not pay enough attention to the Ukrainian issue. The U.S. Secretary of State does not particularly care about Ukrainian problems, either, at least in terms of formal things.
Therefore, it is unlikely that Americans have the will to participate in such meetings at the highest level. Moreover, they are likely to be ineffective. We already have many agreements on armistice and withdrawal of weapons, but Russia believes it can finish Ukraine, so it will continue waging its war and will not agree to end it in the way that Ukraine insists on – with the return of all occupied territories, not to mention the occupied Crimea.
I think that the most probable site where the presidents of Ukraine and the Russian Federation can meet is the UN General Assembly in New York this September. During the General Assembly, a brief meeting between Putin and Zelensky is possible.
I cannot imagine Zelensky coming to Moscow because then he would face a very negative feedback of Ukrainian society. Moreover, it is unclear what exactly can Zelensky bring to Moscow talks.
Moscow has made it clear that it does not perceive Ukraine as a player in international politics
It is worth recalling Peskov, because what Russians have in mind is being voiced by Putin's spokesman. Peskov recently said that everybody was weary of Ukraine, that it had been taking too much space in the international arena recently, so it is time for it to occupy the space it deserves – on the sidelines of political processes. This "imperial" rhetoric is a reflection of how Russia sees Ukraine and how it is going to behave toward its neighbor. Moscow has made it clear that it does not perceive Ukraine as a player in international politics, it is not going to agree with Ukraine, instead planning to decide on everything with the United States and Europe behind Kyiv's back.
What should Zelensky watch out for during negotiations with Putin? Firstly, Zelensky is already being "trained": he is gaining experience in negotiating, meeting with European leaders. And now, he is on a visit to Canada. This is a positive experience, although, of course, it's an experience of conducting soft negotiations, not hard talks.
Secondly, it is very important to prepare Zelensky for talks with Putin in order to clearly define the "red lines" that cannot be crossed. He needs to communicate more with professionals, experts, and military order to understand Ukraine's strengths and weaknesses, to develop a negotiating strategy.
Thirdly, Zelensky does not have to repeat Poroshenko's mistakes. That is, society should know more about the attitude and goals of the president in order to have public support during such negotiations. This is necessary to avoid confrontation and split in society that we have witnessed as a result of Poroshenko's moves during the presidential election.
Fourthly, Zelensky also needs public support as an argument in talks with Putin, as if to claim that he could go for certain compromises, but they will not be perceived well in Ukraine. And since Ukraine is a democratic country, its president must take into account public opinion. In support of this idea, let's recall the events of August 31, 2015, when Poroshenko tried to eradicate the Constitution by "Minsk agreements", but received a strong opposition from legislators and society, which led to the tragedy. This is an important argument to strengthen Ukraine's position and Zelensky's position, too.
However, I am skeptical of "compromises" with Russia. Russia is an existential threat to Ukraine, and it will remain so for a long time. It enhances its combat capability and builds up its forces near the border and in occupied territories. So, even if Ukraine agrees to some form of capitulation, it does not mean that all of these weapons will be withdrawn from our territory and from our border. Therefore, Ukraine must prepare for a long-standing confrontation, which most likely, in the near future, will continue in the political plane. After all, through his fifth column, Putin will try to put pressure on Ukraine and destabilize the country to show the West that Kyiv is incapable of self-governing, which is why it is "best" to hand Ukraine over to Russia, which will quickly restore order there. There will be other things, too: energy blackmail, cyberwarfare, and fighting in other directions.
It seems to me that the president's team will soon lose the illusion that something can be negotiated with Russia. Possible arguments about the status of the language or some other "compromise" steps are of no interest to the Kremlin and unable change Russia's policy towards Ukraine. It's enough to just look at Belarus: how a military-political alliance suffers from the growing Kremlin appetite. This is a vivid illustration of the fact that it is impossible to negotiate with Russia, because, even being an ally of the Russian Federation, you are not immune to anything. So, there are no alternatives to strengthening Ukraine's ability to defend itself, integrate into Western security, political and economic space, reducing contacts with Russia, and limiting its ability to influence its neighbor.
Oleksandr Khara is an expert with the Maidan of Foreign Affairs Foundation