Russia commits to more talks on Ukraine in wake of separatist leader’s assassination

Germany and France urge calm amid fears Moscow could abandon diplomacy

Alexander Zakharchenko, left, the leader of pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk, was killed in a bomb attack last Friday. Photograph: Darko Vojinovic/AP Photo

Alexander Zakharchenko, left, the leader of pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk, was killed in a bomb attack last Friday. Photograph: Darko Vojinovic/AP Photo

 

Russia has said it will not withdraw from talks to end the war in eastern Ukraine following the murder of a separatist leader in the region, as Germany and France called for calm and renewed diplomacy on the four-year conflict.

Alexander Zakharchenko was killed last Friday when a bomb exploded in a restaurant in Donetsk, the stronghold of Russian-led militants who seized parts of eastern Ukraine after the country’s then Kremlin-backed leaders fled a 2014 revolution.

Moscow blamed Kiev for the assassination, and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said it was “impossible” to continue talks on the conflict after a killing that was “clearly aimed at stopping the implementation of Minsk agreements”, 2015 accords which lay out steps towards eventual peace in the Donbas region.

Ukrainian officials deny involvement and say Mr Zakharchenko (42) was probably killed by Russian agents or local rivals, noting that he was just the latest of several Donbas warlords to die in a gun or bomb attack far from the frontline.

“After the terrorist act that occurred, it will probably be hard to talk about anything with the Ukrainian side. But I repeat once again – that does not mean that Russia is pulling out of the Minsk process,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday.

Minsk process

“Russia was and remains a country that is committed to the Minsk process.”

The Minsk agreement was thrown into doubt in the days after it was signed in February 2015, as Russian and separatist forces ignored a supposed ceasefire and drove Ukrainian troops from the strategic transport hub of Debaltseve.

Fighting in Donbas subsequently decreased without ever fully stopping, and shelling and skirmishes still occur almost every night, steadily adding to a death toll of more than 10,300; the conflict has also displaced some 1.6 million people.

“It’s of paramount importance that an escalation is avoided now,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Monday.

Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia are part of the so-called Normandy talks on implementation of the Minsk agreements. The negotiations have yielded few results since 2015 and Kiev and Moscow are at odds on all key issues.

“The latest developments in eastern Ukraine do not call into question the obligations of the parties under the Minsk agreements, nor the relevance of the Normandy format meetings,” a spokeswoman for the French foreign ministry said.

“It is precisely when tensions arise that negotiations must be made in good faith.”