Ukraine has provisionally agreed to hold local elections in the occupied territories of its two easternmost regions once all armed formations leave the area and control is regained over about 400 kilometers of borderland with Russia.
At a briefing in Kyiv on October 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the agreement, brokered in Minsk with Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), paves the way for peace talks with Moscow to end the war in the Donbas that is in its sixth year.
“There cannot be and will not be elections held at gunpoint,” Zelenskiy said. "There will be no capitulation."
The occupied regions would receive self-governing status once they hold elections that are deemed to be free and fair by the OSCE, according to what is known as the Steinmeier formula, a component of an overall road map for attaining peace.
Russia and Ukraine would exchange all remaining prisoners while Kyiv would receive control over the occupied territories prior to the elections, which would be carried out according to Ukraine’s constitution and legislation.
“The return of Ukrainian citizens is a priority -- for me personally and, I think, for every Ukrainian,” Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy, who defeated former President Petro Poroshenko in a landslide victory in April, promised Ukrainian voters he would move quickly to end the conflict in the nation’s two eastern provinces that has killed more than 13,000 people.
The 41-year-old leader took steps toward that promise when he agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin that each side would exchange 35 prisoners. The swap happened on September 7.
Poroshenko on the same day criticized the agreement, saying it would legitimize Russian proxies in the Donbas.
After Zelenskiy's announcement, a group of right-wing groups assembled outside the presidential office building to protest the decision.
Andriy Biletsky, leader of the far-right National Corps, said Zelenskiy "chose shame and now he will get war too."
Nationalist Svoboda party member Yuriy Syrotyuk said Zelenskiy had "committed treason."
Moscow had demanded Kyiv agree to the Steinmeier formula before it would consent to four-way peace talks with Ukraine, Germany, and France. The four countries have not met for peace talks since October 2016.
Zelenskiy said a date is being set for the four-way talks that will come soon. At the meeting, the president said he will push to get promises in writing that Kyiv first must regain control over its eastern border with Russia and that all armed groups vacate the territories that Ukraine doesn't control before an election takes place.
Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backed a separatist movement in Ukraine’s easternmost regions of Luhansk and Donetsk after Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Kremlin president, was overthrown and Western-leaning Poroshenko was elected the same year.
Russia and Ukraine also agreed to renew pulling troops and equipment from two areas in the Donbas starting on October 7, the OSCE said in a statement.
Troops are currently being withdrawn from Stanytsya Luhanska, one of the six civilian crossing points along the 450-kilometer front line.