The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukraine's president, a political novice, faces major test in first direct talks with Putin

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine meets with servicemen while visiting the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine on Dec. 6. (Evgeniya Maksymova/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — When Ukraine’s boyish-faced TV-comedian-turned-president meets Russia’s Vladimir Putin for the first time Monday, the issue at hand will be about trying to end a war.

But perhaps the bigger question is about setting the tone: whether Ukraine’s relatively untested President Volodymyr Zelensky is capable of standing up to Russia’s formidable and calculating leader.

The Paris meeting aims to find a path to end the war in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have carved off a slice of the country in a conflict that, since 2014, has cost more than 13,000 lives.

A political novice who played the president in a TV sitcom before winning office in April, Zelensky is desperate to end the war — his main election promise — and recover eastern Ukraine.

But he goes into the meeting weakened by President Trump’s suspicions of Ukraine. The U.S. impeachment hearings investigated Trump’s temporary freeze on military support for an ally that is a crucial counterweight to Russian power, in return for a political favor.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron are mediators in the negotiations — the first meeting of the contact group since 2016 to try to thaw the frozen conflict and revive the stalled cease-fire and peace process signed in 2014 and 2015.

No big peace breakthrough is expected, but there is optimism that there could be some positive steps.

Zelensky adviser Andriy Yermak spelled out Ukraine’s demands for a new cease-fire and prisoner exchange in a speech at Chatham House in London on Thursday and threatened that without peace the country would “build a wall” and “live with it.” He did not offer details.

U.S. military aid bolsters Ukraine’s front lines, but Trump drama makes Kyiv nervous

Zelensky trusts no one, going into the talks, he told Time magazine and European publications in a recent interview: not Putin and not the European leaders.

He swept to power on a wave of popular discontent with the political establishment, only to become immediately snarled in the United States’ impeachment drama after Trump, in a July 25 phone call, leaned on him to “do us a favor though” and dig up dirt on former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

The phone call — and the arm-twisting by the world’s superpower — did not place Zelensky in a particularly positive light. He tried to ingratiate himself with Trump by complaining that France and Germany were not doing enough to support Ukraine. In fact, Europe has contributed significantly more to Ukraine than has the United States, 18 billion euros (about $20 billion) since 2015, Elmar Brok, special adviser to the European Commission president, told the Interfax Ukraine news agency in October.

The United States has committed $1.5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since 2014, according to Defense News.

Since his election, Zelensky has adopted a Trump-like media strategy, bypassing regular channels for the most part, posting YouTube monologues on his channel Ze!President while striding on a treadmill or driving in his car. A Ukrainian Everyman, he dresses casually, rarely wearing a tie and sometimes seen unshaven.

But is Everyman who you want sitting in highly complex peace negotiations across the table from a leader like Putin, with his deep knowledge of the technical and military nuances of the conflict?

She wore the Russian flag. He had Ukraine’s. Some people loved it and others were aghast.

Putin’s long-term strategic goal is to have Ukraine in Russia’s backyard, rather than see it turn to the West in pursuit of a more open and accountable democratic model and an end to decades of crippling corruption.

Zelensky’s opponents fear that his relative inexperience could lead him to cede too much to Putin.

Before he became an actor playing the president in a sitcom, he once said he was willing to go down on his knees to beg Putin to avoid military action against Ukraine. (It was March 1, 2014, days after Russia moved to annex Crimea by sending forces in military uniforms without insignia to seize government buildings and raise Russian flags.)

Questions about his negotiating skills were planted in a carefully worded statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry — after Kyiv and Moscow swapped prisoners in early September — that praised Zelensky’s “reasonable approach and willingness to compromise.” Zelensky’s critics immediately took it as evidence that he had given too much away.

Nationalist rallies in Kyiv protested what they saw as Zelensky’s “capitulation” after he endorsed a document, called the Steinmeier Formula, in October that lays down a timetable for peace, including elections leading to a special self-governing status for eastern regions and Ukraine regaining control of its Russian border.

It is opposed by nationalists and veterans in Ukraine, seen as legitimizing the separatists and giving Putin what he wants. Zelensky later said “there will be no capitulation” and no voting until all armed units withdraw and Ukraine has control of the border. Those issues are likely to be stumbling blocks in the Monday talks in Paris.

Victoria Voytsitska, a pro-reform analyst and former lawmaker, said there were bitter pills Ukrainians would not swallow, such as amnesty for separatist fighters. She was concerned that Zelensky would not stand firm against Putin in negotiating conditions for elections in the east.

She saw Zelensky’s most important task as ensuring that European leaders did not weaken sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine, despite the cost to their economies, and demonstrating that Russia was in the wrong.

“I think it’s a great platform to communicate to both European leaders and to Putin the Ukrainian case clearly and publicly. . . . Here’s what we’ve done, here’s what we’ve achieved,” she said in an interview in Kyiv. “Ukraine has done so much. And it’s not us. It’s about war, and there’s a clear enemy who’s sitting at the same table. It’s Russia, that is basically feeding the war every day. And it has to stop.”

Analysis: The phone calls that kept Giuliani at the center of Trump’s Ukraine pressure

Pro-Europe Ukrainian journalist Vitaliy Portnikov predicted that if Zelensky failed to cede ground to Putin, Moscow would simply intensify pressure on Ukraine.

“The Ukrainian president has a really very bad choice — between surrender and war,” he argued in an article published on the liberal website, which is critical of the Kremlin and blocked in Russia.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda met Zelensky last month in the capital, Vilnius, and said Ukraine should not make harmful concessions to Russia “in holding talks with a fairly strong negotiating partner.”

He added: “We don’t want you to make concessions that could harm you.”

Zelensky’s advantage going into talks with Putin, analysts say, is that he offers a new start and a change from his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, whose relations with Russia were poisonous.

Konstantin Gaaze, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Zelensky needed to establish a working relationship with Putin to resolve the conflict. He said Putin might respect Zelensky more than Poroshenko but noted the new Ukrainian leader’s vulnerability as a result of the impeachment drama.

“He understands that his cards are better than Zelensky’s,” Gaaze said. “It makes the situation all about the personal relationship and how they sit together. I think Putin expects that when the door closes, Zelensky will be pragmatic.”

On Friday, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed “very cautious and a very moderate optimism” over an improvement in relations between Moscow and Kyiv.

But despite the more positive atmosphere between the leaders, Zelensky’s hands are tied by opposition in Ukraine to any concessions, according to analysts.

“He has little to give to Putin, otherwise he risks destabilizing domestic politics,” analyst Tim Ash of BlueBay Asset Management said. He said in an email that Putin seemed to want to convey willingness to seem reasonable, without giving up much.

“Given Putin’s track record he is not one to roll over easily, and compromise is not generally in his vocabulary at least toward foes,” he wrote.

Stern reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Natalie Gryvnyak in Kyiv contributed to this report.

The damage done to Ukraine in the impeachment affair

How to support Ukraine as it battles Russian aggression

Giuliani was in talks to be paid by Ukraine's top prosecutor as they sought damaging information on Democrats

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news