After five years of fighting that’s killed more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine, the government in Kiev has agreed to stage elections in the occupied territories as Russian forces vacate hundreds of miles of borderland.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Tuesday’s agreement paves the way for new peace talks with Moscow to end the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region that flared in 2014. The agreement aims to grant self-governing status for the occupied regions via elections that are free from military threat.
“There cannot be and will not be elections held at gunpoint,” Zelensky said. “There will be no capitulation. The return of Ukrainian citizens is a priority — for me personally and, I think, for every Ukrainian.”
Moscow and Kiev exchanged nearly three dozen prisoners last month and Russian troops are gradually being withdrawn.
Zelensky said a date is being set for four-way peace talks that will include Germany and France, and that he wants a written agreement from Russia to recall all troops and hand over control of Ukraine’s eastern border.
The fighting began in early 2014 when Ukrainian activists spearheaded the removal of former leader and Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych. Moscow effectively responded by annexing Crimea and backed pro-Russia separatist fighters in Luhansk and Donetsk. The fighting has so far killed more than 13,000 people.
Russia’s annexation drew international condemnation and punitive sanctions from the Obama administration.
Russia and Ukraine are still at odds, however, over the prospect of Ukraine joining the European Union and NATO — as Moscow opposes the former Soviet state interacting with the West. Zelensky has said it’s a Ukrainian goal to join both alliances.
The breakthrough with Moscow comes at a time of heightened political tensions for Zelensky, who’s now a key figure in a congressional impeachment investigation in the United States. The U.S. House is investigating a July phone call between Zelensky and President Donald Trump, during which the leaders discussed investigating the son of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.