Ukraine, Russia hope for progress after peace talks

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Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, speaks during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Monday Dec. 9, 2019. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met for the first time Monday at a summit in Paris to try to end five years of war between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists. (Charles Platiau/Pool via AP)

KYIV – Ukraine and Russia on Tuesday both hailed the outcome of peace talks in Paris even though they failed to solve the core issues blocking the resolution of the five-year separatist conflict in Ukraine's east.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met for the first time Monday at the talks sponsored by France and Germany, which dragged on for eight hours but didn't produce a breakthrough

They made a deal to exchange prisoners and pledged to ensure a lasting cease-fire in fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 14,000 and devastated Ukraine's industrial heartland. They made no progress on key contentious issues — a timeline for local elections and control of the borders in the rebel-held region.

“It was a tie,” Zelenskiy told reporters after the talks.

The 41-year-old Zelenskiy, a comic actor with no political experience who was elected in a landslide in April on promises of ending the fighting in the east, blamed his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, for leaving a bad legacy.

The Paris talks focused on the implementation of a 2015 peace agreement for eastern Ukraine that was signed in Minsk and brokered by France and Germany.

The Minsk deal puts forth that Ukraine can regain control over the border with Russia in the separatist-held regions only after they are granted a broad self-rule and hold local elections. The agreement was a diplomatic coup for Russia, ensuring that the rebel regions get a broad authority and resources to survive on their own without cross-border support.

“It's a very difficult situation, we are hostages of the Minsk deal,” Zelenskiy said. “But despite that, we aren't going to accept it.”

Zelenskiy pushed for tweaking the timeline laid out in the accord so that Ukraine gets control of its border first before local elections are held, but he met stiff resistance from the Russian leader.

Speaking at a Kremlin meeting Tuesday, Putin charged that handing control of the border to Ukraine could lead to atrocities similar to those during the Bosnian war in the 1990s.

Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta independent think tank in Kyiv, said the Ukrainian leader did well at his first encounter with the steely Russian president who has been in power for two decades.

“Putin has failed to enforce his negotiations strategy and style on Zelenskiy,” Fesenko said. “Zelenskiy managed to secure his own agenda for future negotiations by strongly raising the issue of border control.”

While opinion surveys have shown overwhelming support for Zelenskiy’s peace efforts, some suspect the political rookie of being too soft and prone to making concessions to Russia. Several hundred protesters set up a tent camp around his headquarters during the talks before removing it Tuesday.

Zelenskiy hailed an agreement to exchange all known prisoners as a key achievement of the summit, saying that 72 Ukrainian prisoners should return home before the year's end.

Separatists said they were ready for the swap, but in a sign of conflicting interpretations that may jeopardize the deal they said they are prepared to swap 53 Ukrainians for 88 rebels.

In Moscow, officials and lawmakers welcomed the outcome of Paris talks as a step toward peace.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, voiced hope that the first meeting between Putin and Zelenskiy will mark the start of “constructive dialogue.”

“If we stick to the path, upon which we started out, again, in Paris, we would be able to talk about some progress in the resolution of this conflict,” said Alexei Pushkov, a senior member of the upper house of Russian parliament.

In the run-up to Monday's talks, the parties pulled back their troops from the front line in two areas to help prevent skirmishes and enforce a lasting cease-fire. Zelenskiy and Putin said they agreed to continue the disengagement in several other areas.

The summit was the biggest test yet for Zelenskiy. While Zelenskiy still enjoys broad public support, he has been embarrassed by the scandal around his discussions with U.S. President Donald Trump that have unleashed an impeachment inquiry in Washington.

The U.S. was never part of this peace process, but U.S. backing has strengthened Ukraine's overall negotiating position with Russia in the past. After the Trump administration froze military aid earlier this year, that support is increasingly in doubt, making many Ukrainians fear they could be left alone to face Russia.

Ukrainian troops, who face the separatists from the World War I-style trenches in the east, say that the U.S. aid is essential for the country to survive.

“We do need support, because Russia wages war not only against us," said one soldier, who goes under a call name "Crab."

Nearby, a dummy dressed in army uniform, loomed over trenches to deflect enemy fire.

The warring parties have continued to regularly exchange gunfire and artillery salvos, leaving civilians in cross-fire.

Residents of the region, battered by more than five years of fighting, are longing for peace.

“Most of the things should be decided through negotiations and not through war," said Nadiya, a resident of the village of Mariinka near the front-line who asked to be identified only by her first name for personal security reasons. "It is difficult morally and psychologically. We need peace and tranquility.”


Vladimir Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Inna Varenytsia in Mariinka, eastern Ukraine, and Daria Litvinova in Moscow, contributed to this report.