KYIV, July 11 – President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had his first phone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Thursday to discuss on-going conflict in eastern Ukraine and release of prisoners.
The release of 24 Ukrainian sailors held by Russia since November was a “key issue” during the call, Zelenskiy’s office reported in a statement.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin and Zelenskiy agreed that experts from both countries would work on those issues, AP reported.
Peskov added that the two discussed the possibility of "continuing contacts in the Normandy format," a reference to four-way talks involving the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. They first met in 2014 on the sidelines of the 70th anniversary of the allied landing in Normandy.
Russia seized the three Ukrainian naval ships along with their crews in an incident in November in the Black Sea.
Earlier this week, Zelenskiy suggested that he and Putin meet in Minsk, Belarus to discuss the conflict in Ukraine's east and Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. He added that he would like the leaders of the U.S., Britain, France and Germany to join the talks.
Asked about Zelenskiy's proposal earlier Thursday, Putin told reporters that he's open for talks with the Ukrainian leader. He added, however, that such negotiations would be unlikely before Ukraine's parliamentary elections are held on July 21 and a new Ukrainian Cabinet is formed.
"The high-level meetings need to be thoroughly prepared," Putin said after talks with Bolivian President Evo Morales in the Kremlin, AP reported. "And secondly, talks would only be possible after completing the formation of the new Cabinet and holding parliamentary elections."
The Russian leader also noted that other leaders haven't yet responded to Zelenskiy's proposal and added that British Prime Minister Theresa May is set to step down within weeks.
Zelenskiy, who took office in May, pledged to put an end to fighting between government troops and Russia-backed separatists in the east, which has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.
In 2015, France and Germany helped broker a peace deal for eastern Ukraine that was signed in the Belarusian capital Minsk. It has helped reduce the scope of fighting, but clashes have continued and political settlement has stalled. (tl/ap/ez)