Russia and European powers, anxious to end a protracted military conflict in eastern Ukraine, welcomed Wednesday the new accord between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists, even as many in Ukraine dismissed it as a capitulation to Russia.
In the deal signed Tuesday with separatists, Ukraine, Russia and European mediators pledged to hold a local election 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 Zelensky hailed 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 Zelensky, 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 Zelensky before he agreed on the plan for the local election in war-torn eastern Ukraine.
Other Ukrainian politicians raised alarms about it, however, 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 lawmaker, told reporters in parliament on Wednesday.
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.
Lawmaker Andriy Parubiy, former Speaker of parliament, said he would push for hearings into the peace deal, accusing Zelensky’s new administration of sidelining society from the decision-making in such a crucial development for the nation.
Zelensky’s party holds a majority in parliament after resoundingly defeating Poroshenko and Parubiy’s allies in an early election this summer.
A few hundred people, mostly nationalists, protested the deal — called the Steinmeier formula based on German minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s proposals four years ago — outside the presidential administration in Kyiv on Tuesday night and on the Maidan square that has symbolized protests against Russian influence. A dozen rallied outside parliament on Wednesday and another Maidan protest was planned.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday welcomed the Ukraine peace deal as a “positive step” to implementing the 2015 peace deal and said the date for the summit of the four leaders is to be announced soon.
‘An important step’: German government
While Russia once bankrolled the separatists, sending troops and equipment across the border to the separatists, the Kremlin has tried to play down its involvement in eastern Ukraine in recent years, pulling back its troops and mostly relying on proxy forces. Anxious 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 United States and the European Union slapped Russia with a flurry of sanctions over its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine, which has hurt substantial bilateral trade between Russia and Europe.
Businesses in the EU — in France and Germany in particular — have been pushing for the EU to ease the sanctions but European political leaders have insisted this can only be done if there is progress on the peace settlement for eastern Ukraine.
French President Emmanuel Macron met with Putin and Zelensky separately this summer, encouraging them to relaunch the peace talks. While praising Zelensky 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 signalled that he would support Russia returning to the Group of Seven, the world’s biggest economies, if there is progress in the Ukraine peace settlement.
In Berlin, a spokesperson for Chancellor Angela Merkel praised Tuesday’s accord as “an important step” toward a peace settlement in eastern Ukraine.
“We welcome in particular the commitment of Ukrainian President Zelensky, who took constructive steps forward in the interest of a peaceful solution in Donbass,” Ulrike Demmer told reporters.
Russia, Ukraine and the separatists agreed on a cease-fire in 2015 and even signed a peace deal for a political transition in the east. The peace settlement, however, never took off because the separatists refused to let Ukrainian troops regain control of the border with Russia and allow Ukrainian parties to run in the local election.
Accord still ‘vague’: analyst
Zelensky insisted Tuesday that the local election in the east would be held only under Ukrainian law and after Ukraine regains control of the border.
Darka Olifer, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian envoy to the talks Leonid Kuchma, told The Associated Press on Wednesday 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 election was free and fair.
Tatyana Stanovaya, a scholar at the Moscow Carnegie Center and head of the R.Politik political analysis firm, described Tuesday’s agreement 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.
Russia and Ukraine are likely to face the same stumbling blocks as four years ago unless one side is willing to offer a radical compromise.
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 persisting in the confrontation is weighing heavily on Russia’s economy, said Stanovaya.
Zelensky, for his part, faces pressure both from Europe, which is anxious to see progress in peace settlement and from Ukrainians, who want peace in the east but are wary of reintegrating separatist rebels into the country’s political system.