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U.S. Envoy: 'More Openness' From Russia, But No Ukraine Peacekeeper Deal

Russian envoy Vladislav Surkov (left) and U.S. envoy Kurt Volker last met for talks on January 26 in Dubai.

KYIV -- Russia has shown more "openness" to U.S. suggestions on a possible UN peacekeeping mission in war-torn eastern Ukraine, but Washington and Moscow remain far from striking a deal, the U.S. special envoy for Ukraine says.

Kurt Volker's comments to reporters on January 29 came three days after his meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladislav Surkov, in the Persian Gulf city of Dubai.

Prior to those talks, Volker had traveled to Kyiv for meetings with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and other government officials and political leaders.

Volker said he conveyed to Surkov in a meeting earlier this year "a very strong sense of disappointment and frustration in Washington that Russia has done absolutely nothing to end the conflict [in eastern Ukraine], or to withdraw its forces."

After that, Volker said, he and Surkov "had a very detailed discussion" about how the two sides could break the impasse, including U.S. hopes for peacekeepers with a broad mandate to patrol the entire conflict zone -- including the Ukrainian-Russian border.

Only then, Volker told reporters on January 29, would it be possible "to create the conditions for implementing the Minsk agreements" -- September 2014 and February 2015 pacts aimed at resolving the conflict.

"There was more talking about how we'd get there," Volker said of the Russian side's approach during the Dubai talks.

Fighting between Kyiv's forces and Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions has killed more than 10,300 people since April 2014. Several cease-fire deals announced as part of the Minsk accords have reduced fighting but not stopped it.

Surkov was quoted by Russia's state-run TASS news agency as saying that U.S. suggestions on deploying a UN peacekeeping mission looked "doable" and that Moscow would study them carefully.

The tone following the Dubai meeting was notably more optimistic than after the envoys' November talks in Belgrade, which Volker called "a step back."

Discussions about deploying a UN peacekeeping force ramped up in September, when Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed deploying a UN-led mission along the line separating Ukrainian government forces and the Russia-backed forces.

But common ground on the issue has proved elusive.

Kyiv and the West worry that the deployment of peacekeepers only along the front line rather than the Russian-Ukrainian border would cement Russian control over separatist-held territory and allow Moscow to continue sending fighters and weapons into Ukraine.

Speaking of the level of violence that persists along the 450-kilometer front line in Ukraine's battle-scarred Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Volker called 2017 "a year of violence," adding that "there's a tremendous humanitarian cost to this."

Monitors from the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) recorded a significant increase in cease-fire violations and casualties in 2017 compared to 2016.

Volker said he and Surkov also discussed other issues the U.S. hopes can be addressed immediately, including the return of Russian officers to the Joint Center for Control and Coordination (JCCC) to facilitate communications and improve the cease-fire.

Russia pulled its officers from the JCCC in December, accusing the Ukrainian side of obstructing their work and limiting access to the front line.

Volker said they also discussed the possibility of increasing the number of crossing points for civilians in the conflict zone, and the restoration of mobile-phone service, which had been cut recently.

The two also talked about possible future prisoner exchanges following a large swap that took place in December, as well as increased access for international humanitarian groups, Volker said.