Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pronounced himself unsatisfied with his first in-person meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Monday, telling reporters that “very little” was accomplished in multilateral talks on Russia’s invasion and colonization of eastern Ukraine.
Zelensky’s remarks lamenting the meeting diverged significantly from Putin’s, who told reporters he was “happy” with the alleged progress the two sides made, and comments from the other two participants in the talks — French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who also applauded the momentum built by the leaders meeting.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and has waged a guerrilla war against Ukraine in the eastern Donbas region since that year. Two Russian-backed separatist paramilitaries have declared themselves sovereign states, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and Russia continues to claim it has no official troop presence in the area. The Ukrainian government has repeatedly insisted that it has proof Russia is arming the paramilitaries and sending undercover fighters to the region.
Over 13,000 people have died in the Donbas war in the last five years.
The “Normandy Four” talks occurred in the eponymous French city and took eight hours including the time that Putin and Zelensky conversed alone and with the other two leaders present. The parties released a joint statement announcing that Putin and Zelensky had agreed to a full prisoner swap to be concluded on Christmas Eve and a “full and comprehensive” ceasefire in the region, completed by March. They also agreed to host future summits and maintain communication.
The group reportedly did not discuss Russia’s occupation of Crimea.
Zelensky expressed frustration and dissatisfaction with the summit, hinting at distaste for Putin’s personality.
“Look, it’s very difficult to negotiate [with Putin], but today there were moments when we agreed on something, on certain things,” Zelensky told reporters, according to the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN. “That’s because he dissects every question into details … and then we begin to even consider every word. So yes, this is difficult. I’m just a different person, I’m a quick person. I thought that we could just sit down real quick and have a deal … But it’s different here, it’s different biomechanics, so to speak.”
“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,” he said.
Zelensky added that, at least, “it was good to unblock dialogue.”
The Ukrainian president also said that he refused any dialogue with the leaders of the paramilitaries occupying Donbas, whose leaders have declared themselves the self-styled “presidents” of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two states in Donbas.
“And when in Minsk many things had to be agreed with these representatives [of the illegal armed groups], why it was only they? That is my question. It seems to me that this [involving internally displaced people from the region in talks] will be fair,” Zelensky said. “And I am in dialogue with them [the IDPs] … And I would very much like that in Minsk, I think it’s right that in Minsk, where there are representatives, supposedly representatives, of the occupied part of Donbas, that a few other representatives join them, those who fled (from Donbas). They are real IDPs and also residents of the occupied Donbas.”
Minsk, Belarus, has hosted several summits for dialogue on the Donbas war.
Zelensky’s defeated remarks contrasted significantly from Putin’s assessment of the meeting. The Russian leader said the talks were “good and business-like” and said “yes, I’m happy” with the results. He later referred to the summit as “very useful.”
“In the end, I think, and we share this assessment, that this work was very useful,” Putin said, according to Russian news agency Tass, which did not clarify if he assumed the parties shared the assessment before or after Zelensky declared they achieved “very little.”
Putin also reaffirmed his demand for Ukraine to change its constitution to allow the Donbass states to govern autonomously, something Zelensky has insisted cannot happen until Ukraine eradicates the violent paramilitaries there and, more importantly, Russia stops funding and otherwise aiding them.
Autonomy for Donbas is part of what is being referred to as the Steinmeier formula, which both Putin and Zelensky agree to. The formula requires Ukraine to make the Donbas states autonomous and hold elections there, but only after Russia withdraws from the region. Zelensky has been hesitant to move towards elections because Russia refuses to admit the extent of its illegal presence in occupied territories and claims Donbas is ready for elections despite the tremendous intimidation factor on Donbas civilians from Russian paramilitaries.
Zelensky, a comedic actor by trade, was elected this year in part as a rejection of Ukraine’s establishment politicians’ inability to end the Donbas occupation and the conquest of Crimea. His voters organized a rally featuring over 1,500 attendees this weekend urging Zelensky not to submit to pressure from Putin at the Normandy meeting.