Ukraine talks fail to reach breakthrough but Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskiy agree to ceasefire

Nataliya Vasilyeva
Volodymyr Zelenskiy met Vladimir Putin for the first time, mediated by President Macron - REUTERS

Much-anticipated peace talks for eastern Ukraine have failed to bring about a breakthrough after a six-hour summit in Paris on Monday.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France claimed some progress in moving towards settling the long-simmering conflict after a ceasefire was agreed. The talks were the first time that Ukraine’s new President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, met Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whom many in Ukraine hold personally responsible for the hostilities in the east.

Mr Zelenskiy was elected in April this year and declared putting an end to the protracted armed conflict in the Donbass region as one of his priorities. Just a few months into his presidency, Mr Zelenskiy negotiated a major prisoner swap with Mr Putin, which offered hopes for a breakthrough.

Fighting between government troops and Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine’s industrial heartland has claimed more than 13,000 lives and displaced over a million people since it began in April 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

The leaders of Russia and Ukraine met with the mediation of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday and agreed to implement a comprehensive ceasefire and hold a major prisoner exchange between the Ukrainian government and the separatists.

President Macron welcomes President Zelenskiy to the Elysee Palace Credit: AFP

Although opinion polls show that most Ukrainians favour a peaceful solution to the conflict in the east, many in Ukraine worry that Mr Zelenskiy, a political novice compared to Mr Putin, would find himself making unpalatable concessions to Russia. Monday’s talks, during which Mr Putin and Mr Zelenskiy carved out an hour and a half to talk one-to-one, showed that Mr Zelenskiy was committed to what has been described in Ukraine as red lines for settling the conflict in the Donbass.

Mr Zelenskiy said at the leaders’ joint briefing that he and Mr Putin differed on key issues for political settlement such as handing over control of parts of the Ukrainian-Russian border from the separatist rebels to Ukrainian troops.

Ukraine and the West have for years accused Russia of using the porous border for sending the troops and weapons to the separatists, a claim that Moscow has denied.

Mr Putin insisted at the briefing that local elections in the rebel-controlled east should be held before the separatists cede control of the border.

He added, however, that he was happy that he and Mr Zelenskiy got to meet and that “things are going in the right direction.”

The leaders agreed to meet in four months' time, and Mr Zelenskiy said that there were no preconditions for the next meeting: “There’s no homework.”

Ukraine, Russia and the separatists with the mediation of Germany and France signed peace accords in 2015, committing to a cease-fire and political settlement. Although the fighting died down, the political settlement never fully materialised and large swathes of eastern Ukraine remain under separatist control.

Mr Zelenskiy, a popular comedian who won the presidential vote by a landslide, came into the talks in a weakened position after his country was dragged into an impeachment inquiry in the United States following a whistleblower complaint that President Donald Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure Kiev into investigating a political rival.

Mr Zelenskiy, in the early months of his presidency, tried to secure a White House meeting before talks with Mr Putin but as the impeachment inquiry has showed, US officials instead approached his administration about looking into the work of Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s son in Ukraine.

Mr Zelenskiy had a brief meeting with Mr Trump at the UN General Assembly in September but never had the full-format talks he had hoped for.

Ukraine, Russia and the separatists with the mediation of Germany and France signed peace accords in 2015, committing to a cease-fire and political settlement. Although the fighting did die down, the political settlement never fully materialised and large swathes of eastern Ukraine remain under separatist control.

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