KIEV/MOSCOW — Ukraine on Wednesday refused to pull back troops in its restive east, saying for the second time this week that continued shelling by pro-Russian separatists there precluded the implementation of a disengagement agreement.
Moscow, however, said the door was still open for a fresh meeting of the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany to discuss resolving the five-year-long conflict in the Donbass region, in which U.N. monitors say more than 13,000 people have been killed.
In a breakthrough this month, negotiators from Ukraine, Russia and the rebels agreed that Kiev would grant the rebel region special status and hold local elections there. Under the agreement, rebel fighters and Ukrainian troops would also pull back from the line of contact.
But it remains unclear how exactly any of these steps would be implemented and the stalling of the easiest one - the troop pullback - could indicate that the actual settlement of the conflict remains a distant possibility.
The pullback originally scheduled for Monday and then delayed until Wednesday has now been put off again because of continued shelling by the rebels, a spokesman for Ukraine's defence ministry said, adding that a straight week of strict ceasefire adherence was a prerequisite.
Commenting on the delay, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a successful pullback would have jump-started the implementation of peace accords, but it was up to the leaders of the countries known as the Normandy Four to decide whether to press ahead with a summit aimed at ending the conflict.
"Let is see whether it (the pullback) happens or not in the end... (and if it fails) find out who is to blame for the failure," Peskov told reporters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's decision to support the peace plan previously rejected by Kiev has triggered protests in Ukraine, with some opponents accusing him of capitulation. Zelenskiy has said he would "never betray Ukraine".
"No one is questioning Ukraine's sovereignty, this is Ukraine's domestic issue and Ukraine is dealing with its sovereignty issues on its own," Peskov said.
(Reporting by Pavel Poliyuk in Kiev and Anastasia Teterevleva in Moscow; Additional reporting by Matthias Williams in Kiev; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Katya Golubkova and Gareth Jones)