MOSCOW — French and German foreign ministers visited Ukraine Wednesday in a bid to shore up a 2015 peace deal that has floundered amid continuing fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Jean-Marc Ayrault and Frank-Walter Steinmeier met with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko to discuss ways to secure a durable cease-fire and implement the political provisions of the Minsk agreement, which was brokered by France and Germany.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatist rebels and Ukrainian government troops has killed more than 9,500 people since it began in April 2014. The February 2015 deal helped end large-scale battles, but smaller clashes have continued to claim lives and a political settlement has stalled.
Separatist rebels on Tuesday declared a unilateral cease-fire, and Steinmeier said at a news conference that Ukraine agreed to observe the truce starting midnight Wednesday, according to Interfax. He added that if the cease-fire holds, it would create conditions for pulling back the conflicting sides’ troops from several areas.
Ayrault said that securing the truce and pulling back troops should help set the ground for the next phase of the settlement, in which the Ukrainian parliament would adopt constitutional changes giving a special status to the rebel regions and call elections there, Interfax said.
The Minsk deal envisaged that Ukraine gets back control of the rebellious regions’ border with Russia, widely seen as a conduit for weapons, after granting them broad autonomy and holding local elections there.
That provision of the Minsk deal has drawn strong criticism from Ukrainian nationalists, and an attempt to push it through parliament would heap pressure on Poroshenko. When the Minsk deal was first struck, many accused him of betraying the motherland, so he has dragged his feet on seeking the parliament’s approval for the explosive issue.
Ukraine has accused Russia of failing to withdraw its troops and weapons from the east, but Moscow has denied it has any presence there. The Kremlin, in turn, has argued that Ukraine has failed to meet its end of the Minsk deal by not providing autonomy for the eastern regions and call elections there.
Ayrault and Steinmeier will travel to Ukraine’s east on Thursday, but are expected to stay at a safe distance from the areas controlled by the separatists.
A French diplomatic source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss the issue, said the withdrawal of more weapons should follow if the cease-fire holds and voiced hope that a relevant agreement could be concluded in the coming days. He added that they had received “positive signals” from Poroshenko.
Elaine Ganley contributed to this report from Paris.