Graham Stack in Kyiv -
Hopes for an end to 18 months of fighting in eastern Ukraine were boosted at a meeting of the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia in Paris on October 2, with breakthrough prospects enhanced by a new agreement on elections in the eastern region, and a current ceasefire and continuing withdrawal of weapons from the front lines.
French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and Russian President Vladimir Putin met behind closed doors at the capital's Elysee Palace for five hours of talks.
With Merkel later noting a "positive mood" at the meeting, Hollande said a key issue of contention, the scheduling of elections in the East as the rest of Ukraine elects new local authorities on October 25, had been resolved. In view of earlier deadlines set for holding elections under February's Minsk II peace agreement, the two Western leaders said it was agreed that a new electoral law would be passed in Ukraine to allow a delay in holding the polls in the rebel-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Poroshenko previously said that separate elections conducted by the rebels in eastern Ukraine would be a "red line" that Kyiv cannot accept. However, Hollande said that "it's therefore likely, even certain now, that - since we need three months to organise elections - we would go beyond the date that was set for the end of Minsk [process], that is to say [beyond] December 31, 2015."
But despite the optimistic remarks by Hollande and Merkel, separatists leaders in eastern Ukraine said shortly after the Paris talks ended that they would not delay their planned vote in late October or November.
Also complicating the election talks, the Minsk agreement includes a year-end deadline for Kyiv to recover full control over its border with Russia in the rebel-held eastern areas.
After the meeting, Poroshenko expressed “cautious optimism” about the progress made, but added that the conflict would only be over when "the last piece of Ukrainian territory was freed", according to Interfax Ukraine news agency.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there had been "positive progress" at the talks. The participants had reaffirmed their position that there is “no alternative” to implementing the Minsk agreement, which Kyiv and the West have repeatedly accused Moscow and the separatists of violating, Peskov said.
In an earlier preparatory telephone call between Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko, the leaders also welcomed the signing of a new agreement between the warring sides to pull back weapons from the frontlines in the Donbas region that covers Donetsk and Luhansk, according to a statement posted to Poroshenko's website on October 1.
The Paris meeting was hoped to "push towards a durable and full ceasefire in Donbas" and provide "guaranteed access by OSCE monitors to the whole area, including the Russian-Ukrainian border", Interfax Ukraine quoted Kostiantyn Yeliseyev, deputy head of the Poroshenko's administration, as saying.
Despite some violations, the latest month-long ceasefire has boosted hopes that the Paris summit can bring a permanent end to the fighting, which has claimed more than 8,000 lives since April 2014.
Overshadowed by Syria
Putin has been heavily involved in previous talks to resolve the conflict, which Western governments say is being deliberately stoked by Russia to hamper Ukraine's efforts to integrate with the EU and Nato. Russia denies it has supplied the separatist forces with troops and weapons. However, Moscow's newly initiated air assault on Syrian opposition and rebel forces threatened to overshadow the Paris event and divert attention from Russia's involvement in Ukraine.
At an earlier meeting on October 2, Merkel and Hollande locked horns with Putin over his country's air strikes in Syria launched on September 30 after the Russian leader received fast-track parliamentary approval to use military force abroad. Within hours, Russian military jets and helicopters that had been sent to Syria in recent weeks were pounding forces opposed to Syrian President and Russian ally Bashar al-Assad. While Putin has called for an international coalition against terrorism and IS forces in Syria in particular, Western intelligence reports said the strikes targeted not the IS but other opposition forces.
“I remarked to President Putin that where we’ve identified [Russian] strikes, only one was against Raqqa,” Hollande said, referring to Islamic State’s stronghold in northern Syria. “Others were in sectors that are controlled by the opposition.”
“We have said very clearly that Daesh is the enemy that should be targeted,” Merkel said, using an Arabic name for Islamic State.
Only joining the trio later in the day, Poroshenko, in turn, was intent on keeping attention focused on the civil war that has ravaged the eastern industrial heartland of his country.
Quiet for now on the eastern front
The new ceasefire follows the rebels' signing of agreements on the removal of remaining weapons with calibre of less than 100mm from the demarcation line on September 30 and October 1. Observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) will monitor the process.
Heavier weaponry was withdrawn from the frontlines under the terms of the Minsk agreements signed in February 2015. But the agreement has been routinely violated by firing from mortars and tanks as well as automatic gunfire, causing frequent if low casualties.
The signing of the new agreements appeared to have had immediate effect. "No cases of opening fire were reported in the temporarily occupied territory of Donbas in the last twenty four hours," the Ukrainian military said in a statement in the evening of October 1.
On the same day, however, the leader of the breakaway self-styled Donetsk People's Republic, Oleksandr Zakharchenko, accused Kyiv's forces of firing on the city of Donetsk, and announced a temporary suspension of the withdrawal of weaponry. Drones flown by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission confirmed a concentration of heavy weapons on DPR territory on September 29 and 30 "in violation of the respective withdrawal lines", as reported by Interfax Ukraine.
Recent progress in ending the conflict also results from the passing of controversial legislation that provides for special status of the rebel-held territories, as required by the Minsk agreement.
The Russian-backed rebels subsequently announced they would hold local elections as set down in the Minsk agreements, albeit on different dates from Ukrainian local elections slated for October 25.
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