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To avert Russian invasion of Ukraine, France and Germany try to revive Minsk accords

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's been a lot of diplomatic activity to try to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine. President Biden spoke today with the leaders of France and Saudi Arabia about the situation. And France and Germany are trying to revive agreements that they negotiated eight years ago when Russia first stirred up a conflict in eastern Ukraine. But Russia and Ukraine interpret that deal differently, as we hear now from NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: French President Emmanuel Macron's visits to Moscow and Kyiv set off a debate of sorts between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents over the so-called Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: Like it or not, you have to put up with it, my beauty, Vladimir Putin said, in what many recognized as an old Russian rhyme suggesting sexual assault. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy certainly got the message, responding in Russian the next day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: It's difficult to debate with the Russian president about some things, but in this case he's right, Zelenskyy said. Ukraine is a beautiful country. But Putin went too far in suggesting that beauty belongs to him. Zelenskyy came to office in 2019, vowing to make peace with Russia and end the war in Ukraine's Donbas region. But Putin has sounded increasingly frustrated that the Minsk agreements haven't been implemented the way he sees it. Putin argues that the Ukrainians have to negotiate directly with separatist leaders, even though Russia calls the shots in Donbas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KELEMEN: Negotiate and reach an agreement with them, Putin said, arguing that Ukraine needs to muster up the courage and recognize what is written in the Minsk agreements and, in his words, not try to claim what's white is black and what's black is white. It's not that clear-cut, though, says Olga Oliker of the International Crisis Group. She says the agreements were written in a passive voice and in a way that everyone could live with at a point when Ukraine was weak.

OLGA OLIKER: The Ukrainians understood that it wasn't the deal they wanted and that it is overall a deal that favors Russia, but they needed the shooting to stop.

KELEMEN: The deal sets out a series of military and political steps, but not a clear sequence. For instance, it calls for elections in those regions now run by Russian proxies, but doesn't spell out when.

OLIKER: The Ukrainians don't want to hold elections on these territories if they don't control them, right? Because if you hold elections while they're still under the control of the de facto leaders, well, the de facto leaders are going to win those elections.

KELEMEN: Then there's the question of the special status for the separatist groups that's called for in the agreement. Oliker says it doesn't really define what that means, though the Russians have a clear point of view.

OLIKER: The Russians see this as a way of guaranteeing that these territories, which will continue, in their view, to be run by people beholden to Moscow, will be able to then block Ukraine from doing things that Russia doesn't want them to do.

KELEMEN: Ukraine argues that the Russians need to first withdraw heavy weapons and troops from Donbas, which Russia maintains aren't there. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Ukraine is doing its part to implement the deal, or at least working on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: It is a fair assessment to say that Ukraine has sought to move forward on most, if not all, of them, while Russia has made good on virtually none of its obligations under Minsk.

KELEMEN: In fact, the State Department accuses Russia of violating the deal with its, quote, "current buildup in and around Ukraine." The U.S. is not part of the Minsk agreement, but Blinken sees it as one possible diplomatic off-ramp to a crisis that Russia created. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.