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Putin Questions Zelenskiy's 'Will' To Ensure Pullback In Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) says Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy lacks "political will" to pull the troops back.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) says Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy lacks "political will" to pull the troops back.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of lacking the "political will" to ensure a pullback of heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine, in a swipe at the leadership in Kyiv amid recent signs of possible progress toward ending a five-year conflict between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists.

"We've agreed on the pullback of the forces, but the current president [of Ukraine] still can't ensure the pullback," Putin said at a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Turkmenistan on October 11.

Putin's remark comes a week after Kyiv, along with Moscow and the separatists in eastern Ukraine, signed an agreement on pulling back heavy weaponry as one of the steps toward achieving a peace settlement.

Known as the Steinmeier Formula, the plan lays the groundwork for reinvigorating the larger peace deals known loosely as the Minsk accords, and the first major international summit on the Ukraine conflict in three years.

Zelenskiy's embrace of the plan has drawn opposition from right-wing groups, some veteran groups, and activists in Ukraine who equated the decision with capitulation.

Since the agreement, shelling from both sides has continued along the so-called line of contact.

"He just can't," Putin said in Ashgabat, adding, "[Ukrainian] nationalist military units arrived there and publicly declared: 'If the army leaves these positions, we will stand there. The army is not leaving.'"

Russia maintains that the pullback needs to occur before a summit scheduled for this month between Putin, Zelenskiy, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Several Ukrainian opposition parties and far-right groups have opposed Zelenskiy's commitment to pull back weaponry in two locations near the separatist-held areas and criticized his pledge to back local elections in those areas, arguing that he's ceding too much.

"There won't be any elections under the barrel of a gun," Zelenskiy has said of implementing the formula, adding. "There won't be any elections there if the troops are still there."

Zelenskiy, who won the presidency in April on pledges to seek an end to the conflict, scored a major domestic political victory last month with a prisoner exchange that saw the return of 35 Ukrainians from Russian custody.

The exchange, the first major prisoner swap between the two countries since 2017, was praised by the West.

Russia invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and has been accused by Kyiv and NATO of backing armed separatists in Ukraine's east, where more than 13,000 people have died from the conflict since April 2014.

Moscow has repeatedly denied its role in funding, arming, or training the rebels despite overwhelming evidence, insisting that Kyiv faces a civil war.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, Interfax, and TASS
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