Russia, Ukraine to revive talks
PARIS — The presidents of Ukraine and Russia agreed Monday to revive the peace process on the bloody separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and exchange all their prisoners, but they failed to resolve crucial issues such as a timeline on local elections and control of the borders in the rebel-held region.
At the first meeting between new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the two leaders failed to find a compromise to bring an end to the 5-year-old war that has killed 14,000 people, emboldened the Kremlin and reshaped European geopolitics.
But they did agree to try again in four months to find new solutions, said French President Emmanuel Macron, who mediated the talks along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and called them “fruitful” in that it brought all four leaders together.
“There are disagreements, especially on timeline and next steps. We had a very long discussion on this,” Macron said at a news conference after the talks in the Elysee palace.
The talks focused on reviving a largely stalled 2015 peace agreement intended to end fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Putin said they agreed that there was no alternative to the 2015 accord reached in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. He emphasized that Ukraine should quickly extend a law giving wide autonomy to the rebel-held regions in line with the deal and also approve a legislation granting amnesty to the rebels.
He added that in addition to the prisoner swap, agreement was reached to continue pulling back troops in other areas in the east, clear mines there and remove fortifications.
Zelenskiy acknowledged many previous cease-fire deals didn’t hold but he added that “this time we agreed to treat it seriously.”
“I’m convinced that if all parties want it strongly, we will be able to implement it,” he said.
Ukraine and Russia conducted several rounds of prisoner exchange, most recently in September. Monday’s deal goes further, envisaging a blanket “all for all” exchange of all known prisoners held by Ukraine and the rebels.
Zelenskiy made a particular emphasis on that.
“I would very much like our people to come home in time to spend the New Year holidays with their families,” Zelenskiy said after the talks.
But there was little clarity on the key contentious issues — autonomy for the east and control of the border.
Russia wanted the summit to increase pressure on Zelenskiy to fulfill the 2015 Minsk peace accord, which promises wide autonomy to Ukraine’s rebel-held regions.
The Minsk deal puts forth that Ukraine can regain control over the border with Russia in the separatist-held regions only after they are granted a broad self-rule and hold local elections.
In particular, it stipulates that the Ukrainian law should allow municipal authorities in the east to appoint judges and prosecutors in the region and form local police. It notes that the law should also provide for an amnesty for those who took part in the fighting. Those provisions were anathema to many in Ukraine.
The 2015 deal was a diplomatic coup for Russia, ensuring that the rebel regions get a broad authority and resources to survive on their own without cross-border support.
Zelenskiy wants to tweak the timeline laid out in the accord, which calls for Ukraine to be able to regain control of its border with Russia only after local elections are held in the separatist regions and the regions receive autonomous status. He said Ukraine must get control of its border first before local elections are held, but the Kremlin insists that’s not an option.
The summit was the biggest test yet for Zelenskiy, a comic actor and political novice who won the presidency this year in a landslide — partly on promises to end the war.