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What Does Russia Expect from the Putin-Zelensky Meeting?

Dimitri Alexander Simes

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky will come face to face for the first time during the Normandy Format peace talks in Paris on Monday.

At first glance, the upcoming Putin-Zelensky summit appears to have all the necessary ingredients for a potential breakthrough meeting. The last gathering of the Normandy Format—four-way meetings between Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France aimed at ending the war in eastern Ukraine—took place in 2016. Much has changed since then. Over the past several months, Moscow and Kyiv have held a historic prisoner swap and brokered a troop withdrawal deal between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

But can the Putin-Zelensky summit live up to these high expectations? The National Interest spoke with several prominent Russian foreign policy analysts to better understand Moscow’s goals and expectations for the latest round of the Normandy Format peace talks.

Zelensky won a landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential election back in April on a pledge to fight corruption and restart dialogue with Russia to end the war in eastern Ukraine. The comedian-turned-politician demonstrated his strong popular backing again in July, which is when his Servant of the People party captured a majority of seats in the country’s parliamentary elections. With this mandate from the Ukrainian public, Zelensky has been able to take the first steps in easing tensions with Moscow.

In September, Russia and Ukraine exchanged dozens of prisoners. Then on October 1, the two countries and Moscow-backed separatist groups signed a peace roadmap that called for all sides to withdraw their troops from the front line to pave the way for elections conducted under Ukrainian law in the separatist-controlled territories.

But Zelensky’s overtures toward Moscow have not been popular with everyone. Following the announcement of Zelensky’s deal with Russia and the separatists, thousands of demonstrators rallied across Ukraine to accuse their president of “capitulating” to the Kremlin. Soldiers from ultra-nationalist Azov Battalion went so far as to initially refuse to obey Zelensky’s orders for withdrawal.

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