Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy proposed on Monday that U.S. President Donald Trump should join the leaders of Britain, Germany, and France to mediate talks between Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin over the situation in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
“I want to address Russian President Vladimir Putin. Do we need to talk? Yes, we do. Let’s discuss who owns Crimea and who is not present in Donbas,” Zelenskiy said in a video message to Putin posted on Facebook.
Zelenskiy suggested Minsk as the venue for the meeting, stressing that it would not bypass or override the previously agreed-upon but largely ignored Minsk Accords of 2015, which were supposed to lay out a road map for resolving the conflict between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region.
“We are neither changing anything nor rejecting any diplomatic formats. We are suggesting talks,” Zelenskiy said.
The former comedian and television star, previously best-known for playing an everyman who accidentally becomes president of Ukraine in a television comedy show, sarcastically implied with his comments that Russia is a good deal more “present in Donbas” than it wants to admit. He stressed this criticism in a meeting with European Union officials on Monday, as reported by Radio Free Europe:
“We want to stop this war, and we want to return peace to Ukraine,” he continued. “But this can be done with only one weapon: diplomacy.”
He also said that sanctions must be upheld against Russia until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored.
“Sanctions policy is the last civilized tool to achieve peace,” he added.
“If someone still has any questions or doubts about continuing the sanctions, I invite everyone to Donbas to see how much grief this war has caused,” Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy has been attempting to put his own stamp on diplomacy with Russia since defeating incumbent President Petro Poroshenko in an electoral landslide in April. His stated goal is to negotiate an end to hostilities in Donbas while simultaneously pursuing membership in the European Union and NATO, a course of action strongly opposed by Moscow.
Moscow was lukewarm to Zelenskiy’s call for a face-to-face meeting with Putin.
“I’m not ready to answer now, this is an absolutely new format. We need to understand if the meeting has any prospects and what kind of a format is being suggested,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied when asked about the Ukrainian president’s proposal.
“This is a new initiative, and certainly, it will be considered, but now I cannot give any response,” he said, although he went on to criticize the notion of including President Trump as a mediator because the United States is not a party to the Minsk Accords.
Another unusual and controversial diplomatic channel between Ukraine and Russia is a joint television program called “Need to Talk,” whose title Zelenskiy was riffing on when he asked “Do we need to talk?” in his message to Putin.
The program is supported by Moscow but has been criticized in Ukraine because it is linked to opposition political leaders. Zelenskiy has dismissed the program as a “cheap and dangerous P.R. tool,” a Russian effort to meddle in Ukrainian politics ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for July 21.