Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky suggested Tuesday introducing “serious, powerful players” into years-long peace talks aiming to end the Russian-backed war in eastern Ukraine, suggesting Zelensky has lost respect for current mediator countries France and Germany.
Zelensky has also repeatedly stated publicly that he wants to meet with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and discuss both the war in the eastern Ukrainian Donbass region and Russia’s invasion and colonization of Ukrainian Crimea, both of which began in 2014. Zelensky has expressed frustration in the past with the slow pace of talks under the Minsk agreement framework, where French and German leaders Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel also participated in Ukraine-Russia negotiations. Minsk, Belarus, gave the agreement its name after hosting the negotiations for it.
Putin and Zelensky met with Putin in 2019 — with Macron and Merkel chaperoning — for a meeting that three of the four sides said had been productive. Zelensky said the talks achieved “very little” and that Putin had deliberately made addressing concrete issues “very difficult.”
The Minsk agreements, meant to begin a ceasefire in Donbass that would lead to an end of the war, were signed by Zelensky’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko. The four-way talks between Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine are also commonly known as the “Normandy format” negotiations.
The Donbass war began in 2014 when Russia-backed separatists in the two areas that make up the region, Donetsk and Luhansk, announced their secession from Ukraine. Kyiv has repeatedly accused Moscow of emboldening the separatists and offering them military aid. Russia formally regards the Donbass situation as a “civil war.”
In remarks on Tuesday, Zelensky noted that the Minsk agreements have not done anything to significantly deter the war in the Donbass and that no further agreements to end the violence have come from the currently in use Normandy format. He urged varying the way negotiations are done through the introduction of new mediators.
“It can be an expansion of the Normandy format, a separate, parallel format with other countries, with very serious, powerful players,” Zelensky said, according to his presidential office. “That’s not only because they are powerful, but because they are willing to help Ukraine bring an end to the war. I think this is the right decision.”
The Ukrainian news agency UNIAN noted Zelensky has in the past suggested the United States, United Kingdom, or Canada could be better mediators in the talks than France or Germany.
One of Zelensky’s senior advisers, Mykhailo Podoliak, also told the Ukrainian news organization Interfax in remarks published Tuesday that the president is eager to meet with Putin and discuss the situation directly.
“Volodymyr Zelensky believes that direct inter-presidential dialogue is an important and indispensable opportunity to speed up the time required for a decision since war is war. These are the tragedies of specific people,” Podoliak told Interfax. “Based on this, the President of Ukraine invited the President of Russia to meet. In fact, the proposal was accepted. And what this fact is now being explained is the technical side.”
Zelensky had previously suggested that Putin should meet him for talks in Donbass and has rejected the possibility of traveling to Moscow and negotiating on Putin’s home turf. Zelensky formally invited Putin to Donbass in a televised speech on April 20. In an interview published this week with Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Zelensky also suggested Vatican City as an appropriate venue for negotiations.
“The Holy See is a global moral authority that always effectively plays the role of a mediator, since it is impartial and inspires the confidence of all parties to the conflict,” the president said. “It is for this reason that the Apostolic Capital has often been addressed to resolve conflicts between states and develop a peaceful future. This is both authority, and a sincere desire to help, and guarantees of responsibility. The Pope by his vocation is a prophet of peace.”
Zelensky emphasized that “no real direct communication between Ukraine and Russia has been held for a long time,” which had made peace between the two nations impossible.
The Kremlin dismissed the Vatican meeting idea as a hastily proposed event in an interview and claimed that Kyiv had not reached out to either the Vatican or Russia to organize such a meeting.
“President Zelensky said that it would be the perfect place for such a meeting. However, neither the Vatican nor Russia has official information on the matter. We haven’t received specific information about the proposal,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday.
Peskov insisted that Putin would not meet Zelensky anywhere outside the Russian capital and that Russia plays no role in the Donbass war — a claim refuted by years of evidence of Russian support of separatists there.
“We all proceed from what President Putin said and since we are not a party to the conflict, there is no need to discuss Donbass issues, peace efforts, with us,” Peskov asserted. “It should be discussed within the four-member group. Putin pointed out that should Zelensky be willing to discuss bilateral relations, he is welcome to Moscow.”
Peskov again insisted Zelensky stating that peace talks were necessary made no sense because “Ukraine and Russia have never been at war, thank God.” The spokesman painted Russia as a mediator equal to Germany and Russia in the Normandy group attempting to end a civil war in Ukraine, not a party to the war.
Zelensky has spent much of his presidency trying to divorce the negotiations surrounding the Donbass war from France and Germany’s monopoly over the talks. In 2019, Zelensky urged President Donald Trump to join as a mediator, as well as leaders of other currently uninvolved European nations, but the requests never resulted in full American participation. By the end of the year, Zelensky found himself at a table with Putin and, once again, Merkel and Macron.
“Many questions were tackled, and my counterparts have said it is a very good result for a first meeting. But I will be honest — it is very little, I wanted to resolve a larger number of problems,” Zelensky admitted following the meeting, which the other three parties celebrated as a success.
Zelensky has since found little support from the office of President Joe Biden, who has held twice as many phone calls with Putin as with Zelensky since becoming president. Biden first phoned Zelensky in early April.