Ukrainian troops will begin a weapons pullback in a second location in war-torn eastern Ukraine next week if a cease-fire there persists, the country’s leader said Thursday.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy spoke in Kyiv, the capital, at the end of talks with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who reaffirmed NATO’s support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia-backed separatists in the east. Stoltenberg arrived at the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa on Wednesday where he toured four NATO vessels that had stopped by during their Black Sea patrol.
Stoltenberg’s visit comes just a few days after Ukraine and the separatists began pulling back weaponry from the front line in the east. The disengagement in two locations along the front line is seen as the final hurdle before much-anticipated peace talks between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany that aim to end to the deadly conflict.
The weaponry pullback finally began Tuesday after Zelenskiy, who won the presidential election in April on a pledge to end the war, visited an area around the eastern village of Zolote and confronted armed veterans who came there to try to hamper the weapons pullback.
Zelenskiy told reporters on Thursday that if a cease-fire in the second location where the weapons pullback is planned persists, Ukraine will withdraw its weaponry on Monday.
The armed conflict in Ukraine’s former industrial heartland has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014 and left large swathes of land, including two regional capitals, in the hands of separatist rebels. It began after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that he was open to the four-way summit on eastern Ukraine but he would wait for the weapons pullback to be completed.
Moscow has been propping up separatists in eastern Ukraine with funds, weapons and sometimes by sending in troops across the border. The Kremlin, however, denies this despite overwhelming evidence.