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Zelenskiy To Meet Putin For Ukraine Peace Talks


Volodymyr Zelenskiy faced his first big test as Ukraine's new president when President Trump tried to get him to investigate the Bidens. Now Zelenskiy is facing another big test - his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Kyiv.


LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: When Volodymyr Zelenskiy was inaugurated in May, hopes were high for Ukraine's new president. He'd just won a landslide victory as Ukrainians looked to the professional comedian to fight corruption, raise living standards and end the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine that's cost more than 13,000 lives. On Monday, Zelenskiy will finally meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris, joined by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

DMYTRO KULEBA: Goals are ambitious, but we have to take the opportunity of this conversation to raise all these issues and to find solutions.

KIM: That's Dmytro Kuleba, a government minister responsible for bringing Ukraine into Western institutions like NATO. He says Ukraine has three goals in the talks - a sweeping prisoner exchange, a lasting ceasefire and, most importantly, regaining full control over Ukraine's border with Russia. It's been three years since the leaders of Ukraine and Russia last sat down together.

KULEBA: We in Ukraine perfectly understand who Mr. Putin is. He will try to play tricks, but we have to be smart enough to identify those tricks and outfox him.

KIM: But while Ukrainians may be wary of dealing with Putin, the Kremlin is also cautious about Zelenskiy, who has no track record as a politician. Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, is already dampening expectations.


DMITRY PESKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "It's obvious," he said on Russian TV this week, "there will be no agreement, and nobody's expecting one." But Peskov said the mere fact of the meeting is positive. Still, Russia also has reason to negotiate. Supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine has carried a heavy price for Moscow, namely five years of Western sanctions. The Kremlin could actually benefit by returning occupied territories to Kyiv, since Ukraine would be weakened by paying for reconstruction and by political polarization.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

KIM: Chanting no capitulation, protesters took to the streets of Kyiv this fall. Zelenskiy has seen his approval rating fall from over 70% a couple of months ago to about 50% now. Kuleba, the government minister, agrees that domestic politics make Zelenskiy's peace efforts more difficult.

KULEBA: Democracy is both the strength and the weakness when you deal with an authoritarian ruler. President Putin doesn't have to agree with anyone but with himself in the morning before he goes to Kremlin.

GREENE: Internationally, pressure is increasing on Zelenskiy to reach a compromise with Putin. Macron is leading a campaign to improve Europe's relations with Russia. Merkel is a lame duck. And the U.S. is distracted and immobilized by the impeachment process. In typical unorthodox fashion, Zelenskiy addressed the nation this week in a social media post from the gym.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: Walking on a treadmill, Zelenskiy said the mere fact he was meeting Putin is already a victory for Ukraine. He said if there's no dialogue, it's like running on a treadmill. You burn up energy and go nowhere.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.