Breakthrough at talks opens way to summit on Ukraine conflict

FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivers a speech during a parliamentary session in Kiev, Ukraine August 29, 2019. Picture taken August 29, 2019. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich/File Photo

A breakthrough at talks between Moscow and Kiev has opened the way to the first international summit in three years being convened on ending fighting in east Ukraine.

Diplomats from France and Germany, the big European powers also involved in peace efforts, said they were confident the summit could now be called for later this month.

Over 13,000 people have been killed in the more than five-year-old conflict in east Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces.

Envoys from Moscow and Kiev agreed at talks on Tuesday on an election schedule for the separatist region and on legislation giving it special status.

“Today, the last obstacles were removed on a path to the Normandy Four summit. I think in the nearest future we will have dates,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told reporters late on Tuesday in Kiev.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany last met in the Normandy format in October 2016. The group takes its name from a meeting of the countries’ leaders in Normandy in 2014.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov welcomed the progress at Tuesday’s talks, Tass news agency reported.

He said that “now all interested parties and their representatives will work on the prospects for holding … a summit. We hope things will become clearer in the near future.”

SOME OBSTACLES REMAIN

French and German diplomats, who were part of Tuesday’s talks, hoped for a summit in Paris in mid-October but said there were still some obstacles to overcome. Relations between Kiev and Moscow have long been strained over Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

“It’s going in the right direction, but we still don’t have an answer from (Russian President Vladimir) Putin on whether he accepts the summit and we aren’t going to leave Zelenskiy hanging if there is nothing to be gained from a summit,” said a French diplomatic source who asked not to be identified.

Regular, low-level clashes have persisted despite a ceasefire signed in 2015 but Russia and Ukraine swapped prisoners last month in a sign of progress.

The conflict is sapping Ukraine’s economy and is one of the factors holding up reforms.

Zelenskiy wants all Russian troops out of the Donbass region of east Ukraine before an election is held there. He says he will not allow a special status law for Donbass to have any impact on Ukraine’s constitution, thus impeding moves to join the European Union, one of Kiev’s goals.

Separatist leaders in east Ukraine said Zelenskiy should not try to “dictate conditions.