Ukraine and Russia have both hailed the outcome of peace talks in Paris even though they failed to solve the core issues blocking the resolution of the five-year separatist conflict in Ukraine’s east.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskiy met for the first time on Monday at the talks sponsored by France and Germany, which dragged on for eight hours but did not produce a breakthrough
They made a deal to exchange prisoners and pledged to ensure a lasting ceasefire in fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 14,000 and devastated Ukraine’s industrial heartland.
They made no progress on key contentious issues — a timeline for local elections and control of the borders in the rebel-held region.
“It was a tie,” Mr Zelenskiy told reporters after the talks.
The 41-year-old, a comic actor with no political experience who was elected president in a landslide in April on promises of ending the fighting in the east, blamed his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, for leaving a bad legacy.
The Paris talks focused on the implementation of a 2015 peace agreement for eastern Ukraine that was signed in Minsk and brokered by France and Germany.
The Minsk deal says Ukraine can regain control over the border with Russia in the separatist-held regions only after they are granted broad self-rule and hold local elections.
The agreement was a diplomatic coup for Moscow, ensuring that the rebel regions get broad authority and resources to survive on their own without cross-border support.
“It’s a very difficult situation, we are hostages of the Minsk deal,” Mr Zelenskiy said. “But despite that, we aren’t going to accept it.”
He pushed for tweaking the timeline laid out in the accord so Ukraine gets control of its border before local elections are held, but he met stiff resistance from the Russian leader.
Speaking at a Kremlin meeting on Tuesday, Mr Putin said handing control of the border to Ukraine could lead to atrocities similar to those during the Bosnian war in the 1990s.
Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta independent think tank in Kiev, said the Ukrainian leader did well at his first encounter with the steely Russian president who has been in power for two decades.
“Putin has failed to enforce his negotiations strategy and style on Zelenskiy,” Mr Fesenko said. “Zelenskiy managed to secure his own agenda for future negotiations by strongly raising the issue of border control.”
While opinion surveys have shown overwhelming support for Mr Zelenskiy’s peace efforts, some suspect the political rookie of being too soft and prone to making concessions to Moscow. Several hundred protesters set up a tent camp around his headquarters during the talks before removing it on Tuesday.
Mr Zelenskiy hailed an agreement to exchange all known prisoners as a key achievement of the summit, saying 72 Ukrainians should return home before the year’s end.
Separatists said they were ready for the swap, but in a sign of conflicting interpretations that may jeopardise the deal, they said they are prepared to swap 53 Ukrainians for 88 rebels.
In Moscow, officials and legislators welcomed the outcome of the Paris talks as a step towards peace.
Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, voiced hope that the first meeting between the two leaders will mark the start of “constructive dialogue”.
The two presidents failed to agree a new contract for natural gas supplies when they met in Paris on Monday.
A Kremlin spokesman said “we can’t say a solution to the problem was found” but the two countries had agreed to “keep talking”.
Negotiations on replacing a contract that expires this year have dragged on because of disagreements over price and debt, raising fears of disruptions of Russian gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine.