When new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy sits down Monday for peace talks in Paris with Russian President Vladimir Putin in their first face-to-face meeting, the stakes couldn't be higher.
More than five years of fighting in eastern Ukraine between government troops and Moscow-backed separatists has killed more than 14,000 people, and a cease-fire has remained elusive. While Zelenskiy has made ending the conflict a priority, the political novice arrives at the table with the veteran Kremlin leader in what appears to be a less-advantageous position:
Zelenskiy still hasn't had the White House meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump that he sought to bolster his stature on the world stage.
French President Emmanuel Macron, the host of the meeting, has made clear recently that he wants to re-engage with Russia and get back to doing business again after five years of sanctions imposed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine.
Macron and the other mediator in the talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will be meeting Zelenskiy for the first time since it emerged that he criticized them in the July 25 phone call that has become the focus of an impeachment investigation against Trump.
So there are concerns among those who support Ukraine's sovereignty that Zelenskiy might end up giving too many concessions to Putin. That could lead to a backlash from Ukrainians who strongly oppose any rapprochement with Russia.
The talks are being organized in the so-called Normandy Format, which was launched soon after Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its backing of the separatists in eastern Ukraine. The consultations had stalled since 2016 but have been revived following Zelenskiy's election.
"There is a whole cocktail of economics and geopolitics that make the situation for Ukraine very difficult and is posing lot of challenges," said Bruno Lete, a security expert at the German Marshal Fund of the U.S., a leading think tank.
"But it's critical that Europeans and the U.S. support Ukraine," Lete argued. "Without peace and stability in Ukraine, there will never be peace and stability in Europe."
The biggest challenge for Kyiv probably comes from France itself, with Macron speaking recently of the "brain death" of NATO because of a lack of coordination and leadership from Washington and also saying he wants to re-engage with Russia.
"It's like telling Russia, 'I will work with you and we'll see about Ukraine,'" Lete said. "He should have waited until after the Normandy meeting. It doesn't help the cause of European security."
The Normandy Format talks had have also been revived following several confidence-building steps between Moscow and Kyiv, including prisoner swaps and troop withdrawals by both sides.
Taras Kuzio, a security expert and professor at National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, said Zelenskiy has already weakened his own position by agreeing to the talks even though Russia insists Crimea is non-negotiable.
Kuzio described the 41-year-old Zelenskiy, until recently a comedic actor, as "extremely naïve about international relations" and said he will find himself in a difficult place — facing a tough opponent in Putin and a population that would reject any capitulation to Moscow.
He said Zelenskiy doesn't grasp that the Russian leader will never compromise over the conflict in eastern Ukraine because "for Putin, compromise is a defeat."
And Macron's pursuit of a reset with Moscow doesn't help Ukraine either.
"The danger is that Zelenskiy will be ambushed by Macron working in effect for Putin because his new agenda is to repair relations with Russia, to get back to a normal relationship, get back to doing business," Kuzio said.
Despite the challenges, Ukraine still has the support from the European Union, its biggest foreign donor, while Merkel has strongly supported sanctions on Russia.
But Germany's longer-term economic interests are a continual challenge for Ukraine.
Berlin is seen as having harmed Ukraine's interests by moving forward with the completion of a Russian-German gas pipeline called Nord Stream 2 that will bring Russian natural gas to Western Europe. Its route bypasses Ukraine, cutting off its leverage as a transit country and an income source.
Germany's relationship with Moscow has been complicated by last week's expulsion of two Russian diplomats over the brazen killing of a Georgian national in Berlin in August, with prosecutors suggesting the slaying was either ordered by Russia or authorities in the republic of Chechnya.
Zelenskiy also isn't helped by the revelations in the July 25 phone call with Trump. A rough transcript of the call revealed him accusing Merkel and Macron of giving too little help to Ukraine. At one point, Zelenskiy tells Trump: "When I was speaking to Angela Merkel, she talks Ukraine, but she doesn't do anything."
At the time of the call, the White House was withholding nearly $400 million in military aid to Kyiv, adding to Ukraine's fears that the U.S. was turning its back on the vulnerable nation.
Ukrainian suspicions that the West cares more about doing business with Russia than Ukraine's sovereignty go back to when the former Soviet republic declared its independence in 1991.
A diplomatic cable written in 2009 by then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor described frustration by Kyiv's political elite. The Ukrainians believed Berlin was an "obstacle in their drive towards EU and NATO membership," Taylor wrote in the cable, which has been published by Wikileaks.
Taylor, now the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who testified in the impeachment hearings in Congress, cited a colorful formulation by Ukraine's former National Security and Defense Council Chairman Volodymyr Horbulin which underscored that.
Taylor wrote that Horbulin joked that there are two Russian embassies in Kyiv, but "one speaks German."
Vadim Karasev, head of the Institute of Global Strategies, an independent Kyiv-based think tank, said the Europeans "have grown tired of Kyiv's endless problems and are increasingly looking at Moscow, which has all the instruments to leverage the situation."
"They increasingly remind Kyiv about delayed reforms and corruption instead of talking about solidarity and a common European home," Karasev said.
European powers, he said, "can't endlessly deal with Kyiv's problems when they have their own issues to solve."
A Houston police officer was shot and killed Saturday evening by a man who had been reported for assault, authorities said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Sgt. Christopher Brewster's death at a media briefing late Saturday. Police officials said in a tweet that the 32-year-old officer was shot just before 6 p.m.
At the briefing, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said police received a call from a female victim who reported that her boyfriend was assaulting her and armed with two firearms. Police responding to the address didn't find the pair, but Brewster spotted them three streets away on Houston's east side.
He was shot at and struck multiple times immediately after exiting his patrol vehicle, Acevedo said. The police chief said the sergeant managed to relay a description of the shooter.
"Although he was mortally wounded, he had the presence of mind to draw his pistol out of his holster to protect himself in case the suspect came up and he also had the presence of mind and courage to put out and broadcast suspect information that was critical for the responding units," Acevedo said.
Brewster died about a half-hour after the shooting, which Acevedo said was captured on body cameras. Acevedo initially said Brewster wasn't wearing his vest, but later confirmed that the officer was.
"What people will see is a coward who took the life of a hero," Acevedo said.
A 25-year-old male suspect fled on foot, and responding officers saw him jumping fences, the police chief said. He was armed with a semi-automatic pistol when he was captured at a school, according to Acevedo, who later tweeted that police recovered both firearms and other evidence discarded by the suspect.
Charges had not been announced as of late Saturday.
The woman who called police is uninjured and cooperating with the investigation, Acevedo said.
Houston's mayor said Gov. Greg Abbott had called and expressed condolences for Brewster's family. The governor also tweeted about the shooting, saying "Tonight & Every Night we Back The Blue in Houston & across Texas."
The police chief said Brewster graduated the police academy in 2010 and was promoted to sergeant in February. He's survived by his wife, parents and sisters.
"We're the Houston Police Department," Acevedo said before invoking the loss of Sgt. Steve Perez, who drowned in the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. "We pause, we pray and we drive forward."
Iran's president said on Sunday his country will depend less on oil revenue next year, in a new budget that is designed to resist crippling U.S. trade embargoes.
Iran is in the grips of an economic crisis. The U.S. re-imposed sanctions that block Iran from selling its crude oil abroad, following President Trump's decision to withdraw from Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
"The budget sends a message to the world that despite the sanctions, we will manage the country," President Hassan Rouhani told the opening session of Parliament.
The proposed budget will counter "maximum pressure and sanctions'' by the U.S., he said.
Rouhani added that the Iranian government will also benefit from a $5 billion loan from Russia that's being finalized.
He said the U.S. and Israel will remain "hopeless" despite their goal of weakening Iran through sanctions.
The budget aimed at giving more relief and "removing difficulties'' for poor people by heavily subsiding food and medical needs, he stated.
The next Iranian fiscal year begins March 20, with the advent of the Persian New Year. The budget is set to be about $40 billion, some 10% higher than in 2019. The increase comes as the country is suffering from a 40% inflation rate.
Parliament has until early February to discuss the budget bill. The Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog, must approve the bill for it to become law.
Iran's economic woes in part fueled the anger seen in widespread protests last month that Iranian security forces violently put down. Amnesty International says the unrest killed over 200 people. Iran has not given any nationwide death toll so far.
Thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday in a march seen as a test of the enduring appeal of an anti-government movement about to mark a half year of demonstrations.
Chanting "Fight for freedom" and "Stand with Hong Kong," a sea of protesters formed a huge human snake winding through the Causeway Bay shopping district. The protest ground to a standstill at times, with thousands of marchers crammed into the narrow streets, their cries of "Revolution in our times" echoing off the high-rise towers.
Many held up five fingers to press their five demands, which include democratic elections for Hong Kong's leader and legislature.
"One of our problems is that the government is not chosen by us, so they do not have to respond to our demands," said Kelly Ma, adding that demonstrating has become a regular part of her life.
"We still have to fight for it," her sister Priscilla Ma said. "We must not give up. We really need them to know what we are thinking."
The huge turnout was reminiscent of marches in the first two months of the movement that drew hundreds of thousands of people, and upward of a million by organizer estimates. Police banned the mass marches as the protests turned increasingly violent, but relented and allowed Sunday's march after a few weeks of relative peace.
Police in riot gear deployed in numbers on the edges of the march. Earlier in the day, they arrested 11 people and seized a cache of weapons, including a firearm with more than 100 bullets. Police said that the arrested apparently planned to use the weapons during the protest to frame police, who have been accused of using excessive force against the protesters.
Rally organizer Eric Lai called on the police to exercise self-restraint and not fire tear gas. Authorities, who have used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets at previous demonstrations, say the force has been necessary to disperse protesters blocking streets, vandalizing shops and throwing homemade gasoline bombs at them.
The rally was called by the Civil Human Rights Front, a group that has organized some of the biggest demonstrations since hundreds of thousands of protesters first marched on June 9 against now-withdrawn government proposals that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts in mainland China.
"We hope this will be a signature for our movement after six months to show to (Hong Kong leader) Carrie Lam as well as to the world that people are not giving up, people will still fight for our freedom and democracy," Lai said as protesters gathered at Victoria Park for the march.
The movement has snowballed into a sustained challenge to the government of the semi-autonomous Chinese territory and communist leaders in Beijing. The five demands also include an investigation into police use of force against the protesters.
"They are out of control," said Ernest Yau, a 28-year-old consultant.
"We understand our common enemy," he said. "We understand that we have to be united to fight against China, to fight against a government that doesn't listen to its people."
A Communist Party official, meeting in Beijing on Saturday with Hong Kong's new police commissioner, said that China would fully support the Hong Kong police's strict law enforcement and "unremitting efforts in restoring social order," China's official Xinhua News Agency reported.
North Korea said Sunday that it carried out a "very important test" at its long-range rocket launch site that it reportedly rebuilt after having partially dismantled it at the start of denuclearization talks with the United States last year.
The announcement comes amid dimming prospects for a resumption of negotiations, with the North threatening to seek "a new way" if it fails to get major U.S. concessions by year's end. North Korea has said its resumption of nuclear and long-range missile tests depends on the United States.
Saturday's test at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground will have "an important effect on changing the strategic position of (North Korea) once again in the near future," an unidentified spokesman from the North's Academy of National Defense Science said in a statement, carried by the country's official Korean Central News Agency.
North Korea didn't say what the test included. Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at Seoul's Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said that North Korea likely tested for the first time a solid-fuel engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The use of solid fuel increases a weapon's mobility and reduces the amount of launch preparation time. The long-range rockets that North Korea used in either ICBM launches or satellite liftoffs in recent years all used liquid propellants.
CNN reported Friday that a new satellite image indicated North Korea may be preparing to resume testing engines used to power satellite launchers and intercontinental ballistic missiles at the site.
Seoul's Defense Ministry said in a brief statement later Sunday that South Korea and the United States are closely monitoring activities at the Sohae site and other key North Korean areas.
On Saturday, President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in discussed developments related to North Korea, and the two leaders committed to continuing close communication, the White House said in a statement. Moon's office also released a similar statement, saying the two leaders had a 30-minute phone conversation at Trump's request.
The North Korean test "is meant to improve military capabilities and to shore up domestic pride and legitimacy," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. "With the activity at Sohae, Pyongyang is also trying to raise international concerns that it may intensify provocations and walk away from denuclearization talks next year."
The Sohae launching center in Tongchang-ri, a seaside region in western North Korea, is where the North has carried out banned satellite launches in recent years, resulting in worldwide condemnation and U.N. sanctions over claims that they were disguised tests of long-range missile technology.
North Korea has said its satellite launches are part of its peaceful space development program. But many outside experts say ballistic missiles and rockets used in satellite launches share similar bodies, engines and other technology. None of North Korea's three intercontinental ballistic missile tests in 2017 was conducted at the Sohae site, but observers said the site was used to test engines for ICBMs.
After his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June last year, Trump said Kim told him that North Korea was "already destroying a major missile engine testing site" in addition to committing to "complete denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula.
Satellite imagery later showed the North dismantling a rocket engine-testing stand and other facilities at the Sohae site. Last March, South Korea's spy agency and some U.S. experts said that North Korea was restoring the facilities, raising doubts about whether it was committed to denuclearization.
U.S.-North Korea diplomacy has largely remained deadlocked since the second summit between Trump and Kim in Vietnam in February due to disputes over how much sanctions relief the North must get in return for dismantling its key nuclear complex — a limited disarmament step.
North Korea has since warned that the U.S. must abandon hostile policies and come out with new acceptable proposals by the end of this year or it would take an unspecified new path. In recent months, North Korea has performed a slew of short-range missile and other weapons launches and hinted at lifting its moratorium on nuclear and long-range missiles.
North Korea said the results of Saturday's test were submitted to the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party. The North said last week that the Central Committee will hold a meeting in late December to discuss unspecified "crucial issues" in line with "the changed situation at home and abroad."
At the United Nations, a statement released by North Korea's U.N. ambassador, Kim Song, said Saturday that denuclearization had "already gone out of the negotiation table."
The statement accused the Trump administration of persistently pursuing a "hostile policy" toward the country "in its attempt to stifle it." The statement was a response to Wednesday's condemnation by six European countries of North Korea's 13 ballistic missile launches since May.
The North Korean diplomat accused the Europeans — France, Germany, Britain, Belgium, Poland and Estonia — of playing "the role of pet dog of the United States in recent months."
"We regard their behavior as nothing more than a despicable act of intentionally flattering the United States," the ambassador said.