Little wiggle room as Ukraine, Russia leaders meet for crunch Paris talks

FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's President Zelenskiy attends a news conference in Tallinn

By John Irish and Matthias Williams

PARIS/KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian and Russian leaders will try to seal a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and agree prisoner swaps when they meet next week but with Kiev politically constrained and Moscow unlikely to bend, prospects for peace remain bleak, diplomats said.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Vladimir Putin hold their first face-to-face talks on Dec. 9 in Paris overseen by the French and German leaders, more than three years since the countries' heads of state last met. It comes after a slight easing of tensions.

Over 13,000 people have been killed in the more than five-year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces. There has been little sign of a peaceful solution despite a ceasefire agreement signed in February 2015 in Minsk.

Zelenskiy scored a landslide election victory in April promising to end the simmering conflict but, facing pressure from his opposition, he is wary of conceding too much to Moscow.

"If we start discussing the real political, military and security issues, namely, withdrawal of some troops on the line of contact, the question of local elections and the status of the Donbass region, you see that the two leaders don't have a lot of room for maneuver," said a senior French diplomat.

Relations between Ukraine and Russia collapsed following Moscow's annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, which prompted Western sanctions.

Key to the accords are elections in the disputed eastern Donbass region of Ukraine. But both sides accuse each other of failing to stick to the deal, which includes restoring Ukrainian state control over the entire border with Russia and the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the conflict zone.

"If Russia doesn't want to agree to a deal, in this case we will be building a wall and life will go on," Ukrainian presidential aide Andriy Yermak told a forum in London on Thursday. "We will be living unfortunately in a scenario of a frozen conflict."

Vladimir Frolov, a former senior Russian diplomat, said he saw little chance of a major breakthrough in Paris, describing the positions as irreconcilable.

"Zelenskiy is going to hit two walls, one in Paris and one afterwards - the wall of Russian intransigence and the wall of Ukrainian public unwillingness to endorse humiliating compromises with Russia," Frolov said.

"Moscow does not care about sanctions relief, it cares about meeting its strategic objectives in Ukraine...and a confederate Ukrainian state that Kiev does not fully control," he said.

Calling the Dec. 9 meeting a test of where both sides stand, another French diplomat said progress on a ceasefire and prisoner swaps would be a good basis to move forward.

The summit comes within the wider context of Europe's relations with Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron has sought a reset with Moscow, something that has unnerved eastern European Union partners.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Editing by Michael Perry/Mark Heinrich)

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