US pushes Ukraine and Russia for peace deal progress

Kiev and militants dispute timetable for elections and constitutional change

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko with French counterpart Francois Hollande in Paris on Tuesday. Mr Poroshenko said local elections “should be free, democratic and honest, but in the current situation that is impossible”. Photograph: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko with French counterpart Francois Hollande in Paris on Tuesday. Mr Poroshenko said local elections “should be free, democratic and honest, but in the current situation that is impossible”. Photograph: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

 

A top US official arrived in Ukraine on Wednesday to discuss implementation of a beleaguered peace deal for the country, amid rising pressure on Kiev from western powers to accelerate reforms and the fight against corruption.

After holding talks in Kiev, US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland is due to fly to Moscow to meet senior Russian officials, who insist that Ukraine seek compromise with the Kremlin-backed militants in its eastern regions.

The so-called Minsk agreement signed in February 2015 sought to end fighting between Ukrainian government troops and separatists, which over two years has killed some 10,000 people and displaced more than two million.

But soldiers still die almost every day in flashpoint areas, and international monitors warn that violence could surge this summer because the combatants are edging towards each other and returning heavy weapons to the frontline.

The separatists who now control parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, bordering Russia, demand that local elections be held in their regions without Ukrainian parties, and that Kiev gives them sweeping autonomy to run their own affairs.

But Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko insisted on Tuesday that certain key conditions must be met before Kiev makes those moves.

“It’s clear that for the changes to be made to the constitution, preliminary conditions must be met. Russian forces must be withdrawn from Ukraine,” he said.

“And the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission should have access to uncontrolled parts of the Ukrainian-Russian border and other areas where it’s critically important to ensure the withdrawal of heavy weapons,” Mr Poroshenko told French television.

He said the local elections “should be free, democratic and honest, but in the current situation that is impossible”.

Despite regular western claims to the contrary, Moscow insists it has no weapons or fighters in Ukraine, and the separatists refuse to let Ukrainian parties run in their elections and are wary of moves to bolster the OSCE mission.

“Ukraine either adopts a law on local elections agreed with us by July 14th or not. If it doesn’t, we will take a decision on local elections ourselves,” said Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the separatists’ so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.

With several EU states growing weary of sanctions on Russia, pressure is rising on Ukraine’s government to give ground to the Kremlin and the militants, as well as to step up anti-corruption and economic reforms.