The United States is not setting a precise deadline for Kyiv to hold disputed elections in war-wracked eastern Ukraine, a senior U.S. official on European affairs says.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland made the remark in the Ukrainian capital on April 27 at the end of a visit during which she met with President Petro Poroshenko, new Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman, and Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.
Nuland's statement came after Ukrainian lawmaker Viktoria Voytsitska, a member of the reformist Samopomich (Self-Reliance) party, told reporters after meeting Nuland on April 25 that the U.S. diplomat was setting a July deadline for the elections as a precondition for extending sanctions imposed on Russia for its alleged involvement in the war.
"We have put no date on when elections need to happen, we've made absolutely clear that [the] Minsk [deal] requires that there be sufficient security and [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE] access and the ability of candidates to ballot and the ability of citizens to hear from candidates before you can have an election," Nuland told a press conference.
The Minsk agreements, known as Minsk II, were brokered in February 2015 by France and Germany and were signed by Ukraine, Russia, the separatists, and the OSCE.
The accords established a cease-fire and called for elections and other measures to end the conflict.
More than 9,100 people have been killed in the fighting in Ukraine's eastern and southern regions and around 21,000 others wounded since the conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russia-backed separatists broke out in 2014.
Holding elections in eastern Ukraine is seen by Kyiv's German and French partners as a way to end one of Europe's bloodiest conflicts since the 1990s Balkans wars.
Last month, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Ukraine should hold local polls in rebel-held regions by the end of June.
But the pro-Western government in Kyiv views such a time frame as unfeasible because of both the continuing violence and the separatist leadership's refusal to hold the vote under Ukrainian laws that require foreign monitoring of the polls.
Nuland on April 27 reiterated that U.S. President Barack Obama is committed to fully implementing the Minsk accords and that there is unified commitment from U.S. allies to keep sanctions in place against Russia until Moscow meets its obligations under the Minsk accords.
"We reaffirmed for President Poroshenko and Foreign Minister Klimkin President Obama's unwavering commitment to see the Minsk agreements fully implemented, restoring full Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donbas," Nuland said.
Fighting in the east has diminished under the fragile cease-fire that is part of the Minsk deal, but the separatists still control parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and other aspects of the accord seem far from implementation.
Nuland also said punitive measures will only be dropped once Ukraine regains full territorial integrity, including Crimea, which Russia occupied and then annexed in March 2014.
"And, of course, we remain committed to retain sanctions that apply to the situation in Crimea until Crimea is returned to Ukraine," she said.
But Nuland added that financial aid from Washington was tied to Kyiv's ability to combat corruption and implement austerity measures outlined in an International Monetary Fund (IMF) rescue package, rather than its progress toward fulfilling the points outlined in the Minsk deal.
"U.S. financial assistance to Ukraine and technical assistance to Ukraine is tied to Ukraine's staying on the reform course, tied to its staying inside the IMF program, pursuing judicial reform, anticorruption reform, energy reform -- not [tied] to Minsk [accords]."
However, Nuland, who was in Kyiv for the first time since pro-European parliament speaker Volodymyr Hroysman was confirmed as prime minister earlier this month, said she was returning to Washington "optimistic that reform is back on track in Ukraine."
The IMF has said Kyiv must tackle corruption and enact economic reforms in order to receive a desperately needed $17.5 billion bailout package.
At the end of her news conference, Nuland also indicated that the U.S. secretary of state could visit Ukraine in the coming months.
"U.S. State Secretary John Kerry is very eager to come back to Ukraine. He hasn't been here in about a year. He bothers me every time I come -- why am I coming and he is not coming? And I remind him that he is working on 400 other problems. But he very much wants to come this spring," Nuland concluded.