KYIV, Ukraine -- Ukraine’s new president has said he believes an international summit next week will help achieve a lasting cease-fire in the country’s separatist conflict.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy said late Friday ahead of talks with the leaders of Russia, France and Germany in Paris on Monday that he also hopes to negotiate a quick deal to exchange all prisoners held by the warring parties.
More than 14,000 people have died in fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels since the conflict erupted in 2014 after Russia's annexation of Crimea.
Ukraine and Russia struck a prisoner exchange deal in September and agreed on a troop pullback from two locations in eastern Ukraine as part of efforts to pave the way for the Paris talks. Russia has also released three Ukrainian navy ships it seized in a Black Sea incident a year ago.
“It was a signal that Russia is ready for a conversation,” Zelenskiy said during a TV talk show.
Zelenskiy, a 41-year old comic actor with no previous political experience, was elected in a landslide in April on promises to end the fighting.
Opinion surveys have shown broad public support for Zelenskiy's peace efforts, but some in Ukraine fear that the novice Ukrainian leader could make concessions to the steely Russian president.
The Paris talks will focus on implementation of the 2015 Minsk agreement, a deal that was brokered by France and Germany. The document was signed after a series of defeats for Ukrainian forces and envisaged broad autonomy for the rebel-held regions and a sweeping amnesty for the separatists.
It also contains a provision that Ukraine could only regain control of the border in the separatist-controlled regions after they hold elections and receive the autonomous status — a diplomatic coup for Russia, which backed the separatists across the frontier.
Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has demanded Zelenskiy not grant autonomy to the separatist-controlled areas even though he himself accepted that provision when he negotiated the Minsk deal.
That drew a sardonic response from Zelenskiy, who said that the “former president disagrees with what he signed himself.”
Poroshenko and other critics of Zelenskiy called a rally in Kyiv on Sunday to warn him against making concessions to Russia.
Zelenskiy said in Friday's TV show that he will push for quickly regaining control of the border so that Ukraine oversees it at the moment when the local election is held. He said that Ukraine hopes to conduct the vote next October along with local elections across the country,