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Ukraine's President To Meet Russian Counterpart For Peace Talks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, meets the president of Ukraine. The meeting in Paris is dramatic since the two countries are fighting an undeclared war. Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskiy won office in part by promising peace. Now, to Americans, this is all the backdrop to an impeachment inquiry. President Trump is sympathetic to Russia, and he withheld his own administration's military aid to Ukraine while seeking investigations of Democrats. So the war is the backdrop to that. But to Ukrainians, the war is the story.

NPR's Lucian Kim reports from both countries. He's in Moscow now. Hey there, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What do the two presidents mean to accomplish in this meeting?

KIM: Well, they're meeting together with the leaders of Germany and France. This four-way format has been around since 2014, really from the very start of the conflict, when the Kremlin backed an armed insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The problem is the last Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, did not get along with Putin, and the last meeting they had was more than three years ago.

Zelenskiy says he wants three things - an exchange of all prisoners from both sides, a lasting cease-fire and Ukraine regaining control over its border with Russia. Russia is not in such a big hurry, but the status quo also comes at a high price for the Kremlin. For one, supporting the separatists is expensive. But much more importantly, Western economic sanctions will not be lifted until there's a peaceful resolution. There's also a third player, French President Emmanuel Macron. He's been pushing very hard for normalizing relations with Russia, but he knows that that cannot happen until there's some kind of progress on Ukraine.

INSKEEP: When we hear Zelenskiy's ask there, you can imagine the one that is the big sticking point. When he says regain control of Ukraine's border with Russia, that's the border where Russia is supporting an undeclared war and supporting separatists and has seized Crimea. There's a lot of territory Russia is effectively holding, right?

KIM: Exactly.

INSKEEP: So this is all happening at the same time as this impeachment inquiry in the United States in which Zelenskiy is involved. A phone call to Zelenskiy by President Trump is the center of that entire story. How does that affect his negotiating position, if at all?

KIM: Well, actually, a lot - it affects it a lot. When Zelenskiy came into office in May, he had two foreign policy priorities. The first was meeting Trump, and the second was meeting Putin. He wanted the White House visit to show Putin that he has U.S. backing. And he didn't get that visit.

What's more, now we're hearing the news that Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and not Ukraine's will be traveling to Washington tomorrow.

Zelenskiy was asked on a talk show this weekend what it's like to be caught between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. and between Russia and the West on the global stage. And this is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: (Speaking non-English language).

KIM: What he's saying here is that when the representatives of empires are seated at the table, he does not want Ukraine to be the dish that's served. He said what he wants is for Ukraine to be accepted as an equal and independent nation.

INSKEEP: You know, it's especially troubling to hear him say that he feels caught between Democrats and Republicans in the United States - because haven't there been statements by Republican senators - Ron Johnson of Wisconsin comes to mind, a lot of Republicans - saying the most essential thing for this U.S. ally is to have bipartisan support in the United States? Is that what Zelenskiy would like to have behind him, is bipartisan support?

KIM: Of course, and he's been trying to stay out of the fray as much as possible.

INSKEEP: Lucian, thanks so much.

KIM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim is in Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.