Volodymyr Zelensky looked up from his treadmill and addressed the people of Ukraine.
“Some say that it’s impossible to have a dialogue with Putin,” he said, “but without dialogue it’s like we’re on a treadmill — we are running forward, but not moving.”
Days before his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine’s president promised his war-battered nation of 43 million that he would not betray them to the enemy.
“This meeting is already a victory for Ukraine,” Zelensky said in the video, recorded as he worked out and then posted on his Facebook page.
Zelensky will meet Putin in Paris on Monday to resume peace talks aimed at ending Ukraine’s war with Russian-backed separatist militias in its eastern Donbas region. Zelensky was elected Ukraine’s president in April on a promise to bring peace and eliminate Ukraine’s endemic corruption.
But Zelensky goes into the talks in an extremely difficult — and some say weakened — position against Putin, a former KGB agent who is accused of orchestrating a campaign to destabilize Ukraine and prevent it from pivoting toward Western Europe.
Zelensky, a former comedic actor with no prior political experience, was in office only two months when he participated in a phone call with President Trump that would eventually lead to a U.S. impeachment inquiry. Trump’s freezing of $391 million in security aid intended to assist Ukraine in its conflict with Russia is at the heart of the scandal.
The Ukrainian president must now stand up to Putin in Paris at a time when the consistency and strength of nearly three decades of bipartisan U.S. support for Ukraine’s developing democracy have been questioned.
Congressional testimonies of State Department and White House officials have revealed Trump’s unfavorable views of Ukraine, which he has called the “most corrupt country in the world.” Trump has said he believes it was Ukraine — not Russia, as the American intelligence community has concluded — that interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a theory that has been echoed repeatedly by many in the Republican party.
The White House finally released the security aid in September, but as Zelensky heads to Paris, “Ukraine feels, I think, probably fairly isolated in terms of political support from this administration,” said Michael Kofman, a senior researcher at CNA, a national security research organization in Arlington, Va.
Ukraine and Russia were both parts of the former Soviet Union, and the Slavic nations share deep historical and cultural ties. Since independence in 1991, Ukraine has attempted in fits and starts to replace Moscow’s influence with Western economic and political reforms, largely supported by the U.S. and the European Union.
The 2014 Maidan revolution in Kyiv resulted in the ousting of a Moscow-favored president. That was followed by Moscow’s rapid annexation of Crimea and support for the pro-Russian separatist militias in Donbas.
Russia comes into the Dec. 9 talks holding the advantage, said Konstantin Skorkin, a Moscow-based independent analyst on Ukrainian affairs.
“Russia wants to create peace in Donbas, but it wants it on its own terms,” Skorkin said. Ultimately, Moscow sees Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence. Russia wants a resolution to the conflict that will allow the Kremlin to have a greater say in Ukraine’s policy toward the West, and in particular its relationship with NATO, he said.
Now in its sixth year, the Donbas war has cost nearly 14,000 lives and displaced 1.5 million Ukrainians. The war’s front line has simmered since the height of the conflict from 2014 to 2016, but daily fighting continues, killing both civilians and soldiers.
Previous peace talks have failed as both sides have pushed back on the sequencing of the peace plan. Only fragments of a 2015 plan known as the Minsk agreement brokered by Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany have been enacted.
Major breakthroughs are not expected in Paris on Monday, but Zelenksy will look to prove to Ukrainians that he has the political will to face down Putin and restart negotiations, Kofman said.
“It wouldn’t make much sense to expect that Zelensky and Putin are going to walk out of the talks [and] one person is going to substantially give in to the other,” Kofman said. “But on the other hand, you could expect that this is the first of a number of meetings, which could ultimately change the direction of the conflict.”
Monday’s meeting will include the leaders of France and Germany, who hope to encourage a dialogue between Ukraine and Russia to restart talks on key elements of the Minsk agreement, including troop withdrawal, regional elections in occupied territories and the return of border control to Ukraine.
Recent symbolic overtures from Ukraine’s European partners have also alarmed Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.
French President Emmanuel Macron last month said he believed it was time for a “reset” with Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has held a strong stance against Russian aggression and supported sanctioning Russia for the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and involvement in the Donbas war.
This week, Germany expelled two Russian diplomats in the wake of the killing of a former Chechen separatist in Berlin after Moscow’s refusal to assist in the crime’s investigation.
But Merkel faces growing support in her country for the loosening of restrictions on doing business with Russia, particularly to feed Germany’s need for Russian gas. Merkel has announced that she will not seek reelection when her term ends in 2021, opening the way for a new chancellor to propose a softer position with the Kremlin.
“Europe is very tired of this conflict, because it is actually happening in the center of Europe, therefore Europeans would like the Minsk agreements to be realized,” Skorkin said. “Europe wants what is written on paper to finally become a reality.”
For Russia, the Paris talks will be a chance to show Europe the Kremlin’s good-faith effort to engage in talks. Moscow’s relations with the West are at a post-Cold War low. Despite Putin’s insistence that Western sanctions on Russia have not hurt his nation, economic growth is almost stagnant.
“The Russians hope that this will be a yet another step towards a loosening of European sanctions,” Kofman said. “That’s ultimately what it is about for Russia.”
At home, Zelensky faces considerable public and political opposition from those who fear there will be any form of rapprochement with Russia.
Tens of thousands of protesters have demonstrated against Zelensky’s decision to pull back Ukrainian troops from several points along the contact line in a reciprocal move with the separatist militias. Groups of war veterans have come out strongly against the troop withdrawal, calling it a capitulation to Putin.
Zelensky, who was elected with 73% of the electorate, has seen his approval rating steadily decline since his inauguration, dropping to 53% in the latest polls.
In his video address ahead of the summit, Zelensky insists his meeting with Putin is an important step toward peace and a restart of stalled talks that failed under former President Petro Poroshenko.
How the two presidents interact will be closely watched by Ukrainians.
“Zelensky’s call with Trump showed he was very new to politics, because he was so pleased to be speaking to someone of such a high stature as the president of the U.S.,” Skorkin said. “He can’t be like that with Putin. He can’t be in awe of him. That will surely be a huge fail at home.”