KYIV, Ukraine – Russia and European powers, eager to end a protracted military conflict in eastern Ukraine, on Wednesday welcomed the new accord between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists but many in Ukraine dismissed it as a capitulation to Moscow.
In the deal signed Tuesday with the separatists, Ukraine, Russia and European mediators pledged to hold local elections in Ukraine’s rebel-held east, where a grinding five-year conflict between the separatists and Ukrainian troops has killed more than 13,000 people.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy praised the deal as a major step toward resolving the conflict, and the election pledge was seen as the final hurdle before a much-anticipated summit between Zelenskiy, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of France and Germany, who have helped mediate the peace talks. Russia had previously refused to sit down with Zelenskiy before he agreed on the plan for local elections in war-torn eastern Ukraine.
But other Ukrainian politicians raised alarms about it, saying it opens the door to cementing Russia’s presence in the region.
“This is capitulation to Russia,“ former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, now a member of parliament, told reporters.
Poroshenko said the deal is “playing into Russia’s hands” because Ukraine committed to holding the local election but did not receive any guarantees that it would regain control over of all of its border with Russia.
The 2015 peace agreement, brokered by France and Germany and signed in Minsk, Belarus, envisaged that Ukraine regains full control of its border with Russia only after the rebel regions receive broad autonomy and hold elections for local and regional leaders and legislatures. Ukraine and the West say the border has served as a conduit for Russian troops and weapons.
The Minsk deal’s provision for wide autonomy for the rebel regions met broad criticism in Ukraine, effectively thwarting the deal that Zelenskiy now seeks to resuscitate.
Lawmaker Andriy Parubiy, former parliament speaker, said he would push for hearings into the peace deal, accusing Zelenskiy’s new administration of sidelining society from the decision-making process in such a crucial development.
Zelenskiy’s party holds a majority in parliament after resoundingly defeating Poroshenko and Parubiy’s allies in an election this summer.
A few hundred people, mostly nationalists, protested the deal outside the presidential administration in Kyiv on Tuesday night and on Independence Square, known as the Maidan, that was the scene of the pro-Western protests six years ago. A dozen rallied Wednesday outside parliament, with another protest planned for later on the square.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov welcomed Tuesday’s agreement as a “positive step“ to implementing the 2015 accord and said the date for the summit of the four leaders would be announced soon.
Russia has sought to play down its involvement in eastern Ukraine recently. Eager to get Europe to lift at least some of the sanctions over its involvement in Ukraine, Putin agreed on a major prisoner exchange with Ukraine last month.
The U.S. and the European Union slapped Russia with sanctions over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and its support for the separatists, and those penalties have hurt substantial bilateral trade between Russia and Europe.
Businesses in the EU – in France and Germany in particular – have been pushing for an easing of sanctions but European political leaders have insisted this can only be done if there is progress on peace in eastern Ukraine.
French President Emmanuel Macron met with Putin and Zelenskiy separately this summer, encouraging them to relaunch the peace talks. While praising Zelenskiy for reaching out to residents in the rebel-held territories, Macron supported the decision to give back Russia its voting rights at the Council of Europe and signaled he would support Russia returning to the Group of Seven if there was progress in the Ukraine peace process.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday it was still too early to talk about the possibility of lifting sanctions, but she praised Tuesday’s agreement as a step in the right direction.
“We have made some progress, but there will be many more steps to come,” she said in Berlin. “So what we can say now is not that we can remove sanctions but that the conditions are there … for a meeting of state and government leaders.“
German Foreign Ministry spokesman Rainer Breul said the deal “demonstrates that persistent, sustained diplomatic efforts pay off.” He insisted it would not compromise Ukraine’s territorial integrity as some fear. When asked if Ukraine needs to regain full control over the border with Russia before the vote, he said that was “the question that still needs to be discussed.“
Zelenskiy insisted Tuesday that the local elections in the east would be held only under Ukrainian law and after Ukraine regains control of the border.
Darka Olifer, a spokeswoman Leonid Kuchma, who is the Ukrainian envoy to the talks, told The Associated Press that all parties have committed to consider the vote valid only if monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe rule that the elections are free and fair.
Tatyana Stanovaya, a scholar at the Moscow Carnegie Center, described Tuesday’s deal as a vague document that does not commit Ukraine or Russia to anything. “Ukraine has agreed to a formula that is very vague and has no details. The question is what happens next,” she said.
Views in the Kremlin on the Ukrainian conflict vary between those unwilling to offer any concessions to Kyiv and those who see more benefits in offering compromises such as allowing peacekeepers in the east, because the ongoing confrontation is weighing heavily on Russia’s economy, Stanovaya said.
Zelenskiy is under pressure both from Europe, which wants to see progress in a peace settlement, and from Ukrainians, who want peace but are wary of reintegrating separatist rebels into the country’s political system.
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