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Breakthrough in Ukraine-Russia peace talks as Kyiv agrees to Donbas elections

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A woman attends a rally against approval of so-called Steinmeier Formula, in Kiev, Ukraine October 2, 2019. A sign on a poster reads: "No surrender!"
A woman attends a rally against approval of so-called Steinmeier Formula, in Kiev, Ukraine October 2, 2019. A sign on a poster reads: "No surrender!" -
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REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has agreed to hold elections in the separatist-controlled eastern region of Donbas — a breakthrough in talks to end the five-year conflict.

Donbas would then be granted special status after elections are held in accordance with Ukrainian law.

The Kremlin said on Wednesday that it backed Kyiv’s decision, according to the RIA news agency. Ukraine had opposed the plan until now.

It opens the way to the first international summit in three years being convened on ending fighting in east Ukraine.

"Today, the last obstacles were removed on a path to the Normandy Four summit. I think in the nearest future we will have dates," Zelensky told reporters in Kyiv.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany last met in the Normandy format in October 2016. The group takes its name from a meeting of the countries' leaders in Normandy in 2014.

The announcement comes just weeks after Moscow and Kyiv carried out a long-awaited prisoner swap.

Zelensky 'takes risk to make first step'

The plan for a special status and elections for the Donbas region is known as the Steinmeier formula, with reference to the former German foreign minister who proposed it in 2016.

Speaking to Euronews, expert Fabrice Pothier, Chief Strategy Officer at Rasmussen Global said the Steinmeier formula backed by Kyiv was "nothing new."

READ MORE: What is the 'Steinmeier Formula' and will it lead to peace in eastern Ukraine?

"What's new is that President Zelensky is taking the risk to make the first step," Pothier said.

The key question now is whether the Russians will reciprocate, Pothier told Euronews. This would involve, among other things, withdrawing troops from eastern Ukraine.

The move is not without risks for Zelensky, who has been accused by some Ukrainians of giving in too much to Moscow.

The Russians may well "pay lip service to the Steinmeier formula but don't deliver in the end," Pothier said, adding that EU countries who have been involved in peace talks could play an important role in this regard.

Obstacles to overcome

French and German diplomats, who were part of talks, hoped for a summit in Paris in mid-October but said there were still some obstacles to overcome.

"It's going in the right direction, but we still don't have an answer from (Russian President Vladimir Putin) on whether he accepts the summit and we aren't going to leave Zelensky hanging if there is nothing to be gained from a summit," said a French diplomatic source who asked not to be identified.

Over 13,000 people have been killed in the more than five-year-old conflict in east Ukraine between Russian-backed-separatists and Ukrainian government forces.

Regular, low-level clashes have persisted despite a ceasefire signed in 2015.

Zelensky, in line with the Steinmeier Formula, wants all Russian troops out of the Donbas region of east Ukraine before an election is held there. He says he will not allow a special status law for Donbas to have any impact on Ukraine's constitution, thus impeding moves to join the European Union, one of Kyiv's goals.

Separatist leaders in east Ukraine said Zelensky should not try to "dictate conditions."

Rallies were held in Kyiv on Wednesday against approval of the so-called Steinmeier Formula.

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