Ukraine peace drive hits first bump, but Moscow says ‘Normandy’ summit possible

OSCE observers inspect the situation on the pro-Russian militants' side close to the front line near the Petrivske village, Donetsk area, Ukraine, 9 October 2019. [Dave Mustaine/EPA/EFE]

Ukraine on Wednesday (9 October) refused to pull back troops in its restive east, saying for the second time this week that continued shelling by pro-Russian separatists there precluded the implementation of a disengagement agreement.

Moscow, however, said the door was still open for a fresh meeting of the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany (the so-called Normandy Four) to discuss resolving the five-year-long conflict in the Donbass region, in which UN monitors say more than 13,000 people have been killed.

In a breakthrough this month, negotiators from Ukraine, Russia and the rebels agreed that Kyiv would grant the rebel region special status and hold local elections there. Under the agreement, rebel fighters and Ukrainian troops would also pull back from the line of contact.

Breakthrough at talks opens way to summit on Ukraine conflict

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

But it remains unclear how exactly any of these steps would be implemented and the stalling of the easiest one – the troop pullback – could indicate that the actual settlement of the conflict remains a distant possibility.

EU divisions over Russia mount as France, Germany seek peace in Ukraine

French and German attempts to end the conflict in east Ukraine risk increasing tensions that were already rising in the European Union over how to handle Russia and which could complicate peace efforts.

The pullback originally scheduled for Monday and then delayed until Wednesday has now been put off again because of continued shelling by the rebels, a spokesman for Ukraine’s defense ministry said, adding that a straight week of strict ceasefire adherence was a prerequisite.

Commenting on the delay, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a successful pullback would have jump-started the implementation of peace accords, but it was up to the leaders of the Normandy Four to decide whether to press ahead with a summit aimed at ending the conflict.

“Let is see whether it (the pullback) happens or not in the end… (and if it fails) find out who is to blame for the failure,” Peskov told reporters.

Separately, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko told the local RIA news agency later on Wednesday that calling a ‘Normandy Four’ summit before the troop pullback would be “premature”.

“We confirm that the summit must happen… But it must clearly note the fact that the agreements reached three years ago have been implemented,” RIA quoted Rudenko as saying.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s decision to support the peace plan previously rejected by Kyiv has triggered protests in Ukraine, with some opponents accusing him of capitulation. Zelenskiy has said he would “never betray Ukraine”.

Thousands rally in Kyiv to protest the 'Steinmeier formula' for eastern Ukraine

Thousands of people gathered in Kyiv’s main square on Sunday (6 October) to protest against President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s deal with Moscow to grant autonomy to Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebel-held east as part of efforts to end a five-year conflict there.

“No one is questioning Ukraine’s sovereignty, this is Ukraine’s domestic issue and Ukraine is dealing with its sovereignty issues on its own,” Peskov said.

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