Ukraine, separatists begin troops pullback

A priest blesses volunteers Aug. 26 before they were sent to the eastern part of Ukraine to join the ranks of a special battalion unit fighting against pro-Russian separatists. (AP photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

The Ukrainian army and Moscow-backed separatists said yesterday they had begun to withdraw their troops from a key area in the war-torn east ahead of a high-stakes summit with Russia. The long-awaited pullback is a precondition for the first face-to-face talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to be mediated by the leaders of France and Germany.

“The process of troop withdrawal began by both sides… in the area of Zolote-4” in the Lugansk region, Ukraine’s army said on Facebook. Vladislav Deinego, a representative of the separatist self-proclaimed Lugansk republic, also said the withdrawal in the area had begun. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) confirmed the move.

Since coming to power in May, comedian-turned-president Zelenskiy has sought to revive a peace process to end a five-year-old separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine that has claimed some 13,000 lives. But those efforts have stalled as the Kyiv forces and the Kremlin-backed separatists have repeatedly failed to pull back troops from the frontline because of exchanges of gunfire. The commitment of Zelenskiy’s government to pull back heavy weapons in the east has triggered street protests in the capital of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities.

Many Ukrainians fear the move opens the door to concessions to Russia, which has been funding the rebels and regularly sending its troops across the border. Russia denies these claims. Vladislav Surkov, an adviser to Putin, told the TASS news agency that the pullback was “good news” and said the much-anticipated summit could take place if a weapons pullback in another location goes ahead as well.