Ukraine signed much-anticipated accords with separatists from the country's east, Russia and European monitors that agree a local election can be held in separatist-controlled territory, while opening the way to the first international summit in three years being convened on ending conflict.
The signing at a meeting in the Belarusian capital of Minsk was largely seen as the new Ukrainian government taking a major step toward resolving the prolonged armed conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced more than 1 million since 2014. 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. In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov welcomed the progress at Tuesday's talks, Tass news agency reported.
Ukrainian nationalists protested the development, with hundreds gathering on Kiev's Maidan, the square that symbolizes Ukraine's resistance to Russian influence. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said at a briefing in Kyiv that the country agreed to a snap local election in the east, which has been controlled by Russia-backed separatists since April 2014. He sought to dispel fears about excessive concessions to the separatists, saying the election would be held only when Ukraine regains control of all its borders with Russia.
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. The February 2015 Minsk Agreements, agreed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, set out the necessary steps to stop violence against civilians in eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin represented the separatists at peace talks with Merkel in 2015 in neutral Belarus, resulting in a package of peace agreements known as the Minsk II accords, however, the U.N. has warned that the agreements have remained "largely unimplemented."
As the conflict in eastern Ukraine is in its sixth year, a sustainable settlement between Kiev and the separatists seems far from being achieved amid renewed efforts to revive a cease-fire. However, in terms of conflicting interests, the gap between the parties is still too wide to reconcile. Ties between Ukraine and Russia deteriorated after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backed separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine says Russia then engineered quasi-separatist uprisings, which later escalated into a full-scale conflict. Russia denies doing so. Two so-called "People's Republics" have formed in the Donetsk and Luhansk industrial regions of eastern Ukraine, also known as Donbass.