Russia and Ukraine have agreed another ceasefire in the war between Moscow-backed separatists and the Kyiv government in eastern Ukraine, but remain deeply divided on how to resolve a conflict described by France’s President Emmanuel Macron as “an open wound at the heart of the European continent”.
The meeting at the Elysée palace in Paris on Monday between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, the Russian and Ukrainian presidents, was the first face-to-face confrontation between the two since Mr Zelensky was elected earlier this year and promised to end a war in which nearly 14,000 have died.
Mr Putin and Mr Zelensky met on the sidelines of a four-nation summit in the so-called Normandy format, in which Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany are seeking a solution to the Ukrainian conflict following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its destabilisation of eastern Ukraine.
The four agreed to a series of immediate measures to “stabilise the situation in the conflict area”, including a ceasefire by the end of the year, a plan for the removal of minefields, a full exchange of prisoners and military disengagement from three additional areas by March 2020.
Mr Putin and Mr Zelensky, however, remained completely at odds over a long-term political solution. The Ukrainians demanded full control of the country’s border before regional elections that would enshrine a degree of autonomy in contested areas.
“I insisted that Ukraine have complete control of its frontiers,” Mr Zelensky told a midnight news conference, “and I insisted on the withdrawal of all foreign forces”.
The Ukrainian president, who has been accused by some of his opponents of being too accommodating to Russia, said the prisoner exchange was important but he would have liked to have achieved much more. “The ceasefire has been declared 20 times over the past five or six years and 20 times it has been violated,” he said.
Mr Putin, who portrays himself as protecting Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine, gave no quarter, demanding strict application of the Minsk accords agreed under Mr Zelensky’s predecessor in 2014 and 2015. He said that Kyiv could take control of its territory only “once elections are held”.
Mr Macron — who, in courting Mr Putin over the past year, has risked the wrath of the Baltic states and eastern EU member states that feel threatened by Russia — acknowledged that much work remained to be done.
“We haven’t found a miracle solution, but we have moved forward,” he said. Angela Merkel, German chancellor, pleaded for “more elasticity and suppleness” to make the Minsk accords work and agreed with Mr Macron that progress would be hard. “I say openly that we have lots of work to do,” she said.
International expectations for a successful summit were already low, given that Mr Putin appears unwilling to end the war or make significant concessions.
“The meeting between Ukraine President Zelensky and President Putin in Paris today will show whether there is any genuine will in Moscow to settle its conflict with Ukraine,” tweeted Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister and co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “French President Macron has spoken about a new relationship with Russia, but this is really the test.”
Earlier, a senior French official said what was needed was “a very strong political engagement from the Russians so that in this volatile context we can advance step by step”.
In Brussels, Josep Borrell, the EU’s new foreign policy chief, warned that the block had no current plans to lift sanctions on Russia. EU foreign ministers were discussing the Ukraine crisis and the Normandy Four summit.
The EU’s main economic countermeasures against Moscow are due for renewal at the end of next month.
“It’s clear that nobody is thinking of taking out sanctions without getting results on the issues that motivated those sanctions,” Mr Borrell told reporters after the foreign ministers’ meeting.
Ahead of the talks, Ukraine’s economy minister Timofey Mylovanov estimated in a Facebook post that the financial cost to his country from “Russia’s aggression” since the 2014 annexation of Crimea amounted to a “direct loss in 2014-2015 of 15-20 per cent of GDP” and “overall losses of $50bn-150bn”.
Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels