Why the U.S. Needs a Seat at the Table in Talks to End Ukraine’s War

Why the U.S. Needs a Seat at the Table in Talks to End Ukraine’s War
From left, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a joint news conference in Paris, Dec. 9, 2019 (pool photo by Charles Platiau of Reuters via AP).

More than five years after Russia annexed Crimea, with the war in eastern Ukraine grinding on, is a détente between Moscow and Kyiv finally within reach? It might have been tempting to think so with the summit this week in Paris between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was only a few months ago, after all, that Putin and Zelensky had their first phone call, which led to Russia and Ukraine swapping dozens of prisoners and agreeing to consider reopening talks over the political future of the breakaway Donbas region.

Yet despite some progress in Paris, a détente is still far off. Until Russia backs off its demand that Zelensky deal directly with the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the sustainability of any deal will be in doubt. Moreover, unless and until Russia makes room at the negotiating table for the United States, movement toward a negotiated settlement will be incremental at best.

By all accounts, the talks Monday mediated by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel resulted in modest wins all around. The consensus view before the summit in Paris was that Putin holds all the cards in negotiations, given the situation in eastern Ukraine and Zelensky’s weakened positioned vis a vis the White House. Zelensky, however, defied expectations that he would knuckle under to pressure from Putin and capitulate; instead, he rightfully declared the summit outcome a draw.

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