Hints of another exchange of prisoners, talk of a bilateral withdrawal of combat soldiers and heavy weaponry from the 450-kilometer frontline in Ukraine’s east, and rising signs that Moscow and Kyiv are close to a deal on a new Russian gas-transit contract — what’s happening?
Five-and-a-half years after the start of Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine, “there is a sliver of hope that the fighting will stop,” the English-language Kyiv Post newspaper editorialized Friday. The editors fear, though, the peace will be built on discord.
A day earlier, the top military commander of the Ukrainian forces deployed in the eastern region of the Donbas, Gen. Volodymyr Kravchenko, told U.N. envoys he’s currently laying down plans for a withdrawal from the frontline.
“Such a task has been set by the Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine [Ruslan Khomchak], the Minister of Defense [Andriy Zahorodniuk] and the Head of State [President Volodymyr Zelenskiy],” the general said at the September 18 meeting. “We are ready for this for the sake of making the lives of our citizens better,” he said.
But he cautioned that separation of the skirmishing forces would depend on whether Moscow will order a reciprocal pullback of the forces it controls in Ukraine’s easternmost provinces, where Kyiv’s forces have been battling pro-Moscow separatists since 2014 in a conflict that’s claimed more than 13,000 lives.
Since his surprise election earlier this year to the top job in Kyiv, Zelenskiy has been urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to join in a new round of peace talks involving U.S. President Donald Trump and other Western leaders. In a video statement released in July to coincide with a one-day EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv, the political novice and former television comic, who won a landslide election victory in April, appealed to Putin directly. “We need to talk? We do. Let's do it,” he said, looking directly into the camera.
Last month it was announced the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany would meet to discuss the Donbas conflict. Some seasoned diplomats remain skeptical of the outcome. In July, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker cautioned against optimism in an interview with VOA's Ukrainian Service.
“Unfortunately, we've really not heard much news from Russia. They are still saying that everything is Ukraine's responsibility ... that Ukraine needs to negotiate with the two so-called 'separatist people's republics' that they created in Ukraine,” he said, referring to the Kremlin-back self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Skeptics argue Putin isn’t serious about ending a conflict of his own making and has every reason to nurture it as a way to disrupt Ukraine, halt its embrace of the West and to continue to punish Ukraine for the popular 2014 Maidan uprising, which forced out of power his ally Viktor Yanukovych.
Until recently Zelenskiy didn’t appear to be getting anywhere with Moscow, according to some analysts. “Despite his more moderate line on Russia compared to his predecessor, Vladimir Putin has given him no room for maneuver, issuing Russian passports to residents of the occupied territories, instituting an oil blockade, celebrating ‘statehood’ for the occupied territories and continuing with violations of the cease-fire,” commented Chatham House analysts Mathieu Boulègue and Leo Litra earlier this year.
But a prisoner swap earlier this month has prompted some optimism. Speaking in Kyiv at a conference Sunday, Volker welcomed the prisoner exchange, noting there were new dynamics in play between Kyiv and Moscow, although he urged caution, too.
Russian officials say they’re ready to participate in a four-way summit in Paris to try to kickstart the long-stalled peace process, but they say they have strict preconditions for such a meeting. It would be the first major sit-down between Moscow and Kyiv since 2016 when Ukraine and Russia signed a framework agreement on the mutual withdrawal of troops in Donbas. The warring parties were meant to withdraw at least one kilometer back and to dismantle the emplacements for heavy weaponry.
That agreement envisaged a period of stable cease-fire and earmarked three demilitarized zones in frontline areas in Luhansk Oblast, including around the towns of Zolote, Petrivske and Stanytsya Luhanska.
Speaking at a conference earlier this week, Zelenskiy said troop withdrawals were “a priority” for him, and he laid out a path for elections in “parts of the Donbas occupied by separatists,” in accordance with the 2016 Minsk deal. In June, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reported that both sides had effected a complete and mutual pullout from Stanytsya Luhanska.
Zelenskiy’s embrace of the idea of elections is alarming former officials who served in the administration of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, who was highly skeptical of elections, fearing voting in the Russian-controlled Donbas could easily be manipulated by Moscow.
Russian officials say they have preconditions for the scheduled summit — including the troop withdrawals outlined in the Minsk deal and pre-agreed wording on the Donbas’ "special status" within Ukraine.
For Zelenskiy, the risks are high. Miscalculation could wreck his presidency before it has got going. Some of his domestic critics say he’s entering a trap and that Moscow has no reason to be serious about talks. Ukrainian withdrawal amounts to a military retreat and a surrender of Ukraine’s vital interests, they say.
Ukrainian officials say they have no choice but to try to get a resolution to the conflict in the Donbas, noting there is “Ukraine fatigue” in western Europe. In an interview with Germany’s Die Welt newspaper, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said the sanctions the West imposed on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and other incursions are getting increasingly inconvenient for the West.
He said time may be running out, and Ukraine needs to strike a deal. “Even if Western sanctions are not ideal, and it’s getting more and more difficult for our Western partners to maintain them, they still damage the Russian economy,” he said. “And this forces Russia to make steps in the right direction.”
Pristayko said Zelenskiy “wants to achieve true progress within six months,” but added, “I don’t know what the Kremlin’s aspirations are. We will not surrender the territory of Ukraine and have notified the Russians about our red lines. For example, we oppose Russia’s attempts to strengthen its positions on parts of the Ukrainian territory," he said. "We want to return our citizens back.”