KYIV, Ukraine: Ukraine’s leader said Thursday that France and Germany have recently softened their stance in talks with Moscow on settling a conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also told a news conference that his office has reached out to the Kremlin to prepare a meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
The two ex-Soviet neighbors have been locked in a tense tug-of-war ever since Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 following the ouster of the country’s former Moscow-friendly president and threw its weight behind separatist rebels in Ukraine’s east.
More than 14,000 people have died in seven years of fighting in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland called Donbas.
A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany helped end large-scale battles, but regular skirmishes have continued along the tense line of contact in the east and political settlement efforts have stalled.
Last month, increasing violations of a cease-fire in the east and a major Russian troop buildup near Ukraine stoked Ukrainian and Western fears of renewed hostilities. Moscow says it has withdrawn its forces after sweeping maneuvers, but Zelenskyy said Thursday that many Russian troops have remained near Ukraine.
The Ukrainian president also said that France and Germany recently have been too soft on Russia.
“I feel their support, but I believe that it should be stronger,” he said. “They are aware of my thoughts, I have been very frank with them. I believe that they have recently weakened their positions a bit.”
The 2015 peace deal signed in Minsk, Belarus, obliged Ukraine to offer broad autonomy to the separatist regions and a sweeping amnesty for the rebels. It also stipulated that Ukraine would regain full control of its border with Russia in the rebel-held territories only after the election of local leaders and legislatures — provisions resented by many Ukrainians as a betrayal of national interests.
Ukraine has pushed for modifying the Minsk agreement to make reclaiming control of the border with Russia in the rebel-controlled regions precede the local elections there, but Russia has firmly rejected Kyiv’s demands.
Zelenskyy said his office has engaged in contacts with the Kremlin on preparing his meeting with Putin.
“A conversation between the Ukrainian presidential office and the Russian Federation has started” to organize the talks, Zelenskyy said, adding that he could meet with the Russian president in a third country.
The Ukrainian leader has previously suggested that he and Putin meet in eastern Ukraine, and Putin invited Zelenskyy to come to Moscow.
In Moscow, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed in Thursday’s call with reporters that Russian and Ukrainian officials have had some preliminary discussions about a possible meeting, but added they have remained sketchy. – Associated Press