UKRAINE                   -                Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday urged Ukrainian leader VolodymyrZelenskyy to stick to peace agreements to de-escalate the five-year conflict between Kyiv forces and Moscow-backed separatists, the Kremlin said in a blunt statement on Friday.

Putin and Zelenskyy discussed the settlement of the conflict, the Kremlin said, adding that Putin stressed the importance of the “complete and unconditional implementation” of Western-brokered peace agreements.

“Vladimir Putin has posed a direct question - does Kyiv intend to implement Minsk agreements in earnest,” the Kremlin said. France and Germany helped broker the so-called Minsk agreements in the Belarusian capital - but they are poorly observed and the peace process has essentially ground to a halt.

The 2015 deal calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the restoration of Kyiv’s control over its borders, wider autonomy for separatist-held regions of Donetsk and Lugansk and the holding of local elections. But Ukraine’s newly appointed chief of Zelenskyy’s staff, AndriyYermak, this week cast doubt on the possibility of holding elections in eastern Ukraine in the presence of “illegal armed” groups, and without Kyiv controlling the borders in the east.

Yermak, a close Zelenskyy ally, has led talks on Russia and a source in the Ukrainian presidency has told AFP news agency that he will remain the main negotiator with Moscow. Zelenskyy, a 42-year-old comedian with no previous political experience, won a landslide victory in Ukraine last year on pledges to end the conflict and improve ties with Russia. He and Putin met for the first time during a Western-mediated summit in Paris in December. On Friday, Putin and Zelenskyy also discussed a further troop pullback in eastern Ukraine and de-mining operations, the Kremlin said.

“Readiness was expressed to continue efforts aimed at the release and exchange” of people held by Russia and Ukraine, the Kremlin added. Kyiv, for its part, said on Friday the talks with Putin focused on preparations for a new summit, adding the two leaders agreed to ramp up the work of negotiators to implement the existing agreements.

Release of prisoners

“VolodymyrZelenskyy and Vladimir Putin paid special attention to the process of releasing Ukrainian citizens being held” in Russia, Crimea and Ukraine’s separatist-controlled regions, Kyiv added.

Zelenskyy managed to negotiate a long-awaited swap with Russia that saw the two countries exchange a total of 70 prisoners in September. Zelenskyy and Putin last spoke by phone on December 31.