Ukraine, Russia eye revival of stalled peace talks

Moscow has said various conditions must be met before revived peace talks can go ahead and bring together Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky (AFP Photo/Tiziana FABI, ludovic MARIN)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky could meet for the first time as early as this month, in talks aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Hopes for the meeting follow an agreement this week between Ukrainian, Russian and separatist negotiators on a roadmap for the regions held by Russian-backed separatists.
The Ukrainian conflict broke out in 2014 and has since claimed more than 13,000 lives.
The talks would also bring together the leaders of France and Germany, for the first meeting of its kind since 2016.
– Better ties? –
Preparations for what are known as the "Normandy talks" come after negotiators from all sides on Tuesday adopted plans to provide special status for Ukraine\’s separatist-held territories and hold elections there.
The sudden ascent to power of actor and comedian Zelensky, who campaigned on promises to end the war, raised hopes for an improvement in ties between Ukraine and Russia.
Last month, the two countries carried out a long-awaited swap of 35 prisoners each.
Moscow has said a number of conditions should be met before the four-way "Normandy" summit can take place.
Arguably the most important condition for Kiev was to agree on a plan with Moscow-backed separatists known as the "Steinmeier formula."
Moscow has been pushing for the separatist-held territories to be granted a large degree of autonomy and the plan proposed by Steinmeier in 2015 is seen as a potential compromise between Kiev and Moscow.
The peace plan envisages special status for territories controlled by Moscow-backed separatists if they conduct free and fair elections under the Ukrainian constitution.
After the negotiators adopted the plan on Tuesday, Zelensky said the last barriers to conducting a high-profile summit had been removed.
But the announcement sparked anger in Ukraine where broader autonomy for the separatist-held regions remains an explosive issue.
Zelensky\’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko called the plan "Putin\’s formula", claiming it essentially endorses the annexation of Crimea, and hundreds of protesters rallied in Kiev on Tuesday night.
Zelensky has sought to allay fears, saying elections in east Ukraine will not take place before the withdrawal of pro-Russian forces.
"No elections can or will be held at gun point," Zelensky told a news conference.
– Long-awaited summit –
Putin\’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed hope that it will "soon" become clear when the summit could take place.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been hugely instrumental in bringing Russia and Ukraine closer after years in the deep freeze.
Macron has pushed for a review of ties with Russia and said he wanted to bring together Putin, Zelensky and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for peace talks in September.
But in a sign of the challenges of reconciling the positions of Moscow and Kiev, the summit has been pushed back.
Putin\’s top foreign policy advisor Yury Ushakov has said that "everyone understood" the necessity of convening a new summit and suggested it could take place in October.
Macron said on Tuesday the summit would take place "in the next weeks" and could reach "new stages" in solving the conflict.
German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer suggested that the summit would take place in Paris. "The conditions for such a meeting are currently being studied," said Demmer.
Many in Ukraine fear the West has tired of Ukraine\’s long-running crisis and will push Zelensky to make damaging concessions to Russia.
– What\’s on the agenda? –
Russia and France insist talks have to be based on the Minsk accords agreed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany in February, 2015.
The Minsk accords called for an immediate ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, restoration of Kiev\’s control over the border and granting wider autonomy to separatist-controlled territory, among other requirements.
That peace plan has helped reduce the fighting between Kiev forces and Russian-backed separatists but it was never implemented in its entirety. Sporadic clashes continue despite a series of cease-fires.
A separatist insurgency in east Ukraine broke out soon after a pro-Western uprising in Kiev ousted a Kremlin-backed regime and Moscow annexed the peninsula of Crimea in March, 2014.
Kiev and Western countries have accused Russia of giving military backing to the separatists, which Moscow denies.
The war has become the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War, claiming around 13,000 lives since 2014.
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