Ukraine’s president says meeting Putin is key to ending war

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Soldiers of the Ukrainian army on the front line during the Joint Forces Operation in Donbass area, Luhansk region, Ukraine, on June 2018.

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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said a direct meeting must happen with Russian President Vladimir Putin if a five-year conflict between pro-Russian rebels and Ukraine’s armed forces is to end.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Zelensky said discussions would be needed “if we want to end the war” and said the date of any possible meeting with Putin depended on Russia. The meeting would have to take place under the so-called “Normandy format” in which representatives from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France come together to try to resolve the conflict in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.

Zelensky said he would chose the diplomatic path to solve the conflict rather than direct military action, according to Reuters’ reporting of his comments.

Russia has been subject to international sanctions since its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and its role in a pro-Russian uprising in the Donbass region. Sanctions, and the conflict in the east of the country, continue to this day.

The conflict has seen over 13,000 people (including combatants on both sides and civilians) die since 2014, according to the United Nations, and hostilities have affected 3.9 million civilians living in the region.

Efforts by France and Germany in 2015 to broker a cease-fire and peace deal, known as the Minsk agreements or protocol, were widely seen to have failed with both Russia and Ukraine accusing each other of failing to meet the conditions of the deal.

However, prisoner exchanges last month were seen as a positive move to set the tone between both of the main parties, but no date for a meeting has been set.

The removal of sanctions on Russia by the West is seen as dependent on whether the Kremlin abides by a peace deal. So any move toward peace talks, at least, could be a positive for the Russian economy which is expected to grow only 1% in 2019, according to a World Bank report Wednesday, down from a six-year high of 2.3% in 2018. The slowdown has been compounded by the continuation of international economic sanctions, the World Bank said.

The path to peace is not a simple one with regular skirmishes between separatists and Ukrainian troops taking place. Trust between Ukraine and Russia remains low.

The future status of two pro-Russian (self-proclaimed) “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbass region is one of the biggest issues. Earlier this month negotiators from Ukraine, Russia and the rebel side agreed that Kiev would grant the rebel region autonomy and to hold local elections there, Reuters reported. Under the agreement, known as the Steinmeier formula, rebel fighters and Ukrainian troops would also pull back from the line of contact.

The news agency reported Wednesday that Ukraine had refused to withdraw troops, saying continued shelling by pro-Russian separatists precluded them from withdrawing.

Zelensky made resolving the Donbass conflict a key part of his campaign manifesto before his election in May. Thousands of Ukrainians protested last week against plans to grant east Ukraine autonomy, however.

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