Ukraine and Russia agree to ceasefire and to exchange prisoners

Talks between Russia and Ukraine’s leaders end with pledge of ceasefire by end of 2019

(From left) Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Emmanuel Macron and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin attend a joint news conference on Tuesday morning  after a  summit in Paris. Photograph: Reuters

(From left) Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Emmanuel Macron and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin attend a joint news conference on Tuesday morning after a summit in Paris. Photograph: Reuters

 

The leaders of Russia and Ukraine agreed early on Tuesday to exchange all remaining prisoners from the conflict in east Ukraine and to implement a “full and comprehensive” ceasefire by the end of 2019.

A number of difficult questions about the region’s status have been left for future talks.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in their first face-to-face meeting, took part in nine hours of talks in Paris, brokered by French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine that broke out in 2014 has killed more than 13,000 people, left a large swathe of Ukraine de facto controlled by Moscow-backed separatists and aggravated the deepest east-west rift since the Cold War.

The body language between Mr Putin and Mr Zelenskiy, a comedian-turned-politician elected earlier this year on a promise to resolve the conflict, was chilly.

There was no public handshake, and they avoided eye contact.But the talks did deliver specific commitments.

A final communique set out the prisoner exchange and a renewed commitment to implement an existing ceasefire agreement in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region that has never fully taken hold as well as enhanced powers for international ceasefire monitors.

The sides also said they had agreed, over the next four months, to work towards local elections in Donbass, a major stumbling block up to now.

Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, second right, speaks as Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, left, Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, second left, and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, right, listen during a news conference following a summit on Ukraine at Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on Monday. Photograph: Bloomberg
Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, second right, speaks as Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, left, Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, second left, and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, right, listen during a news conference following a summit on Ukraine at Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on Monday. Photograph: Bloomberg

There were no details though on how the votes would be conducted, and Mr Macron acknowledged there were still disagreements on the subject.

“We have made progress on disengagement, prisoner exchanges, ceasefire and a political evolution,” Mr Macron said at a news conference at which Mr Zelenskiy and Mr Putin sat separated by Ms Merkel and Mr Macron. “We have asked our ministers in the coming four months to work on this.”

In addition, Mr Zelenskiy said he and Mr Putin had worked out the outline of an agreement that would allow the transit of Russian natural gas to continue across Ukrainian soil. He gave no details. A member of the Russian delegation said officials had been instructed to hammer out details.

However, there was no definitive agreement on the political issues that stand in the way of resolving the conflict. These include the status of Donbass within Ukraine and who should de facto control the border between Donbass and Russia.

Another round of talks in the so-called Normandy format, brokered by France and Germany, will be held within four months.

Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region spun out of Kiev’s control in 2014, soon after street protests ousted a pro-Moscow leader in the Ukrainian capital and Russia sent in armed men to seize Ukraine’s Black Sea Crimea region.

A 2015 ceasefire deal was signed in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. But fighting still flares up in Donbass four years on, and a peace deal has been elusive. Monday’s summit was the first time the four leaders have met under the Normandy format since 2016.

Many Ukrainians are concerned about compromising with Russia. They see Mr Putin as an aggressor seeking to restore the Kremlin’s influence on the former Soviet republic and ruin Ukraine’s aspiration for closer European ties.

Protesters who have warned Mr Zelenskiy about making concessions to Mr Putin in Paris were camped outside the presidential administration in Kiev, watching the summit news conference on a big screen.

Mr Zelenskiy, who sparred verbally with Russian journalists at the news conference, said he had given no ground on Ukraine’s sovereignty or territorial integrity. He said he and Putin had disagreed on several issues.

Asked who triumphed in their exchanges, Mr Zelenskiy said: “I don’t know who (beat) who. I think it would be appropriate to be diplomatic as we’ve just started talking. Let’s say for now it’s a draw.”

Mr Putin, for his part, is unwilling to be seen to bend to outside pressure over eastern Ukraine, and he does not want to be seen to be leaving the Russian-speaking population of Donbass at the mercy of the Kiev government.

He expressed only cautious hope for the peace talks. “All this gives us the grounds to suppose that the process is developing in the right direction,” he said. - Reuters