Russia, Ukraine to revive peace process, exchange prisoners

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed at the first meeting to find a compromise to bring an end to the 5-year-old war. PHOTOS: AP, AFP

PARIS (AP) - The presidents of Ukraine and Russia agreed Monday (Dec 9) to revive the peace process on the bloody separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and exchange all prisoners, but they 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 President Vladimir Putin, the two leaders failed to find a compromise to bring an end to the 5-year-old 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 along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"There are disagreements, especially on timeline and next steps. We had a very long discussion on this," Mr Macron said 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 he emphasised that Ukraine should quickly extend a law giving wide autonomy to the rebel-held regions in line with the deal and also approve a legislation granting amnesty to the rebels.

He added that in addition to the prisoner swap, agreement was reached to continue pulling back troops in other areas in 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 Mrs Merkel said they agreed to intensify the monitoring by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is now only active for 12 hours a day and 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 the courage and determination of Mr Zelenskiy, adding he 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 Kyiv 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.

Mr Putin and Mr Zelenskiy faced each other across the table, flanked by Mr Macron and Mrs Merkel.

Mr Putin and Mr Zelenskiy 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 World War I-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.

The US is an important military backer for Ukraine, which is hugely out-gunned by Russia.

While the US was never part of this peace process, US 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.

With US influence waning around the world, many in Kyiv see one clear winner: Russia.

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