Russia and Ukraine agree to revive peace process and exchange prisoners

Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president agree on peace treaty

The presidents of Ukraine and Russia have agreed to revive the peace process on the bloody separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and exchange all prisoners, but failed to resolve crucial issues such as a timeline on local elections and control of the borders in the rebel-held region.

At the first meeting between new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the two leaders failed to find a compromise to bring an end to the five-year war that has killed 14,000 people, emboldened the Kremlin and reshaped European geopolitics.

But they did agree to try again in four months to find new solutions, said French President Emmanuel Macron, who mediated the talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and called them “fruitful” in that it brought all four leaders together.

“There are disagreements, especially on timeline and next steps. We had a very long discussion on this,” Mr Macron said at a news conference after the talks in the Elysee palace.

The talks focused on reviving a largely stalled 2015 peace agreement between Ukrainian troops fighting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Mr Putin said they agreed that the 2015 accord has no alternative, and emphasised that Ukraine should quickly extend a law giving wide autonomy to the rebel-held regions in line with the deal and also approve legislation granting amnesty to rebels.

He added that in addition to the prisoner swap, agreement was reached to continue pulling back troops in other areas in the east, clear mines there and remove fortifications.

“I would very much like our people to get back home and spend the new year’s holidays with their families,” Mr Zelenskiy said.

Mr Macron and Ms Merkel said they agreed to intensify monitoring by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is now only active for 12 hours a day, and to conduct it 24 hours a day.

The summit was the biggest test yet for Mr Zelenskiy, a comic actor and political novice who won the presidency this year in a landslide, partly on promises to end the war.

Mr Macron praised his courage and determination, adding that Mr Zelenskiy made “gestures” that allowed peace talks to be relaunched.

A major breakthrough at the Paris talks had been seen as unlikely, and Ukrainian protesters in Kiev had put pressure on their new leader not to surrender too much to Mr Putin, who has been in office nearly 20 years.

But the fact that Mr Putin and Mr Zelenskiy met at all was a significant step after years of war. They faced each other across the table, flanked by Mr Macron and Mr Merkel, and also held a separate one-on-one meeting.

Despite the 2015 peace agreement, Ukrainian soldiers and Russia-backed separatists have continued to exchange fire across First World War-style trenches along a front line that slices through eastern Ukraine.

While Mr Zelenskiy still enjoys broad public support, he has been embarrassed by the scandal around his discussions with US President Donald Trump that have unleashed an impeachment inquiry in Washington.

Washington is an important military backer for Ukraine, which is hugely outgunned by Russia.

While the US was never part of this peace process, American backing has strengthened Ukraine’s overall negotiating position with Russia in the past.

Now that support is increasingly in doubt after the Trump administration froze military aid earlier this year and is increasingly focused on Mr Trump’s re-election bid.

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