Ukraine's New President Breaks With Predecessor and Offers Peace Talks With Vladimir Putin

Ukraine's new President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been in power for less than two months, and already he is taking steps to fulfill one of his most ambitious campaign promises: to resolve the intractable conflict with Russia in the country's east.

"With the change in administration, something moved," noted Sokol Bega, deputy head of reporting and political analysis at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. "This week is, maybe, a turning point."

In late June, Ukrainian troops abandoned their position along the so-called contact line that separates the Donbas, the part of Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists, from the rest of Ukraine. The country's military withdrew around 500 meters from the line of contact, an unprecedented move in a longstanding conflict marked daily skirmishes and ceasefire violations. Military formations controlled by the Russian-backed Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) also allegedly withdrew from their positions near the urban settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a promotion image for the TV comedy "Servant of the People." Kvartal 95

Zelenskiy proclaimed that this disengagement is a clear sign that the Minsk process, an agreement signed between Ukraine, Russia, and the representatives of Ukraine's separatists regions, has been unblocked despite numerous ceasefire violations. He also announced that Ukraine would soon begin to rebuild a bridge that connects the separatist controlled territory to the rest of Ukraine. The government under former President Poroshenko had been promising to rebuild the bridge for years, but no steps had been taken due to security risks.

Shortly after the troop withdrawal, Zelenskiy called for renewed negotiations with Russia over the conflict, and even floated the idea of speaking directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

People in Ukraine told Newsweek that these moves would have been impossible under former President Poroshenko, who was held captive by anti-Russian rhetoric that made it impossible for him to make concessions. On the contrary, Zelenskiy has demonstrated that eastern Ukraine is not a frozen conflict after all.

"Zelenskiy has to show that he is doing something," one European diplomat in Ukraine's capital Kiev told Newsweek, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Five years since the conflict broke out, over 60 percent of Ukrainians say that the ongoing conflict in the country's east is of paramount importance. Around 13,000 people have died since the conflict broke out in 2014. But concrete solutions to the longstanding conflict have been illusive.

Volodymir Ohryzko, former foreign minister of Ukraine, argues that, despite Zelenskiy's determination to solve the conflict, Kiev will need more international support if it is going to protect its sovereignty and reclaim the territory lost to Russian-backed separatists.

"There are two ways for a war to end: to win the war or not," Ohryzko said. "Russia is an immediate global threat and Ukraine's position is very weak."