TARAMCHUK, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukraine wants to build on a lull in fighting in the eastern Donbass region to push for a lasting peace settlement at a new round of four-way talks with Russia, France and Germany, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told Reuters.
Dressed in a T-shirt and khaki trousers, Zelenskiy was speaking on a visit to the area on the 12th day of what Kyiv hopes will be a permanent ceasefire agreed with Russian-backed forces on July 27.
Zelenskiy, 42, was a comic actor when he won a landslide election last year promising to end the conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people and brought Western sanctions on Russia.
Once a political novice, he has since secured prisoner exchanges with Russia and phased troop withdrawals at selected hotspots.
“This is an opportunity to save our guys and continue the diplomatic dialogue,” he said on Friday during a whistle-stop tour along more than 100 km (62 miles) of the frontline.
If the ceasefire holds, “the first big step has been taken, it is necessary to meet in the Normandy Format,” he said, referring to the four-way talks named after the French region where they were first held.
Zelenskiy inherited the conflict that began after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula six years ago. Ukraine says Russia then engineered quasi-separatist uprisings across a belt of eastern Ukraine that escalated into a full-scale war. Moscow denies the claim.
A ceasefire agreed under Zelenskiy’s predecessor in Belarus in 2015 stopped the worst of the fighting, but soldiers and civilians were still regularly killed in flare-ups.
The July 27 truce broke down within hours. But Kyiv says the shooting has been sporadic and on Thursday international monitors for the first time recorded no ceasefire violations within a daily reporting period.
The next round of peace talks is due in Berlin but there is no date fixed. Kyiv wants to press for Red Cross access to its prisoners and a timeline for Russian-backed forces to withdraw.
Zelenskiy said Ukraine was willing to show flexibility on a key sticking point – giving legal special status to the Donbass region after holding local elections there, providing this stopped short of federalisation.
But local elections could only take place once Russian-backed forces withdraw.
“I think this issue is very important: first security, then elections,” he said.
The first year of Zelenskiy’s presidency was overshadowed by Ukraine’s unwitting involvement in events that led to the impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump had pressed Ukraine to launch an investigation into his Democratic rival for the 2020 presidential race, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Zelenskiy said bilateral support for Ukraine would remain strong regardless of who won the upcoming election.
“They are our partners indeed,” he said. “I believe that their strategic course does not change, regardless of who is the president.”
(Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Mike Harrison)