The leaders of Russia and Ukraine agreed on Tuesday to exchange all remaining prisoners from the conflict in east Ukraine by the end of the year, but left thorny questions about the region’s status unresolved in their first face-to-face meeting.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spent nine hours in discussions in Paris in a summit brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
More than 13,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes since the conflict in eastern Ukraine broke out in 2014, aggravating the deepest rift between Russia and the west since the Cold War.
Meeting for the first time since Zelenskyy, a comedian-turned-politician, was elected earlier this year on a promise to resolve the conflict, the body language between the two men was chilly. There was no public handshake, and they avoided eye contact.
A final communique set out a prisoner exchange, as well as a renewed commitment to implement an existing ceasefire agreement in the Donbass region that has never fully taken hold.
In addition, Zelenskyy said he and Putin had worked out the outline of an agreement that would allow the continued transit of Russian natural gas across Ukraine. A member of the Russian delegation said officials had been instructed to hammer out details.
“We have made progress on disengagement, prisoner exchanges, ceasefire and a political evolution,” Macron said at a news conference at which Zelenskyy and Putin sat separated by Merkel and Macron.
“We have asked our ministers in the coming four months to work on this… with a view to organising local elections in four months,” he said, acknowledging there remained differences on the calendar.
There was no definitive agreement on the political issues that stand in the way of resolving the conflict, including the status of Donbass within Ukraine, the control of the border between Donbass and Russia, and how local elections in the region should be conducted.
Zelenskyy expressed a measure of disappointment.
“Many questions were tackled and my counterparts have said it is a very good result for a first meeting,” he said after the talks. “But I will be honest – it is very little, I wanted to resolve a larger number of problems.”
Agreement was reached to hold another round of talks in the so-called Normandy format, brokered by France and Germany, within four months.
There has been scant sign of a peaceful solution to the crisis despite a 2015 ceasefire deal in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Monday’s summit is the first time the four leaders have met under the Normandy format since 2016.
Many Ukrainians are concerned about compromising with Russia. They see Putin as an aggressor seeking to restore the Kremlin’s influence on the former Soviet republic and ruin Ukraine’s hopes for closer European ties.
Protesters who have warned Zelenskyy about making concessions to Putin in Paris camped outside the presidential palace in Kiev, watching the final news conference on a big screen.
Putin, too, is unwilling to be seen to bend to outside pressure over eastern Ukraine, and does not want to be seen to be leaving the Russian-speaking population of Donbass at the mercy of the government in Kiev.