Several thousand people have rallied in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv to demand that the president defend the country’s interests in this week’s summit with Russia, Germany and France on ending the war in eastern Ukraine.
Protesters held placards with slogans such as “No to capitulation”, “Stay away from Moscow” and “Russian gas is a noose around our necks” during the rally on Sunday, led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s political opponents.
Many Ukrainians are concerned that Zelenskyy, a political novice, could be outmanoeuvred by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the summit on Monday in Paris.
Zelenskyy is eager to make progress on ending the war with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has killed some 14,000 people since 2014.
Russia wants to use the summit to increase pressure on Zelenskyy to fulfil the 2015 Minsk peace accord, which gives the rebel-held regions more autonomy in exchange for ending the fighting.
Germany and France helped to broker that 2015 deal, but it has been repeatedly ignored.
The Minsk accord calls for Ukraine to be able to regain control of its border with Russia only after local elections are held under Ukrainian law in the separatist regions and the regions receive autonomous status.
But Zelenskyy says Ukraine must get control of its border before local elections are held.
Among those demonstrating in the capital’s Independence Square was Anton Trigub, a 36-year-old veteran of the fighting.
“I lost a lot of friends who were killed in the east, and I won’t allow their blood to be shed in vain. The authorities are negotiating with the Russians and making some deals behind our backs,” he told the Associated Press news agency.
Tamara Lukashuk, a 52-year-old musician, said Ukrainians were “very tired” of the war.
“But Putin can take advantage of this fatigue, and we do not need peace at all costs under Russian conditions,” she told AP.
Presidential spokeswoman Yulia Mendel said Zelenskyy would make tough demands at Monday’s summit.
“The first three steps that President Zelensky will take at a meeting in Paris: the terms and conditions of the return of captured Ukrainians; a real, not fake, ceasefire; and, of course, the withdrawal of foreign troops and bandit formations from the territory of Donbass,” Mendel wrote on Facebook, using a term for Ukraine’s eastern regions.
Local elections may be held after border control is returned and “when there are no foreign troops and illegal armed groups” in the area, she wrote.
Ukraine’s new Orthodox Church, which won independence from Moscow under Poroshenko, held prayers on Sunday for “a just peace and Ukraine’s victory” at the talks.