Ukraine insists Russia must cede border by end of year

Kiev (AFP) - President Petro Poroshenko has stressed that Ukraine must regain control of its eastern border by the end of December even if full implementation of a February peace deal with Russia is delayed until 2016.

The Western-backed leader was seeking to clarify his stance in view of remarks by French President Francois Hollande at a media event held after a summit meeting on the crisis in Paris on Friday.

Poroshenko told Ukrainian television late Sunday: "The border is a key component of our sovereignty and we are not going to compromise over it."

Hollande had said after talks that also included Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he saw no way the February deal could conceivably be implemented by its end-of-year-deadline.

The main sticking point is the date of local elections in Ukraine's eastern separatist provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk.

The shaky truce deal says Russia must cede the entire 400-kilometre (250-mile) stretch of Ukraine's porous eastern frontier the day after those polls are held.

But Hollande told reporters there was insufficient time "to draw up a law, an electoral law that perfectly conforms" to international norms.

He added that the planned elections could take place only 90 days after such legislation is put in place.

The Donetsk insurgents intend to hold their polls on October 18. Their neighbours in separatist Lugansk have their own vote scheduled for November 1.

Rebel leaders have issued no formal comments about Hollande's remarks.

- Syria shadow -

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on Monday that "the possibility of shifting (the February deal's) deadline was a matter of secondary importance."

"The most important thing is to accomplish what both sides pledged to do," Interfax quoted Lavrov as saying.

The Donetsk militia have already begun preparations for their elections -- a vote that will exclude any person or party that backs Kiev's plans to one day join the European Union and the NATO military alliance.

Ukraine's 18-month revolt has killed more than 8,000 people -- most of them civilians -- and driven about 1.5 million from their homes.

Putin denies backing the insurrections and calls Russian soldiers captured in the war zone off duty or vacationing "volunteers".

The Kiev media widely interpreted the first faceoff between Putin and Poroshenko in nearly nine months as ending with a resounding victory by Russia's increasingly confident and militant head of state.

"The negotiations saw Russia win because its version of the peace deal was confirmed," the Ukraine's RBC financial news site wrote in an opinion piece.

The Paris talks were heavily overshadowed by Russia's sudden military intervention in Syria -- its longstanding Middle East ally and home to its sole foreign sea base.

Washington and Brussels insist they will not offer concessions to Putin on Ukraine in order to reverse Russia's apparent refusal to distinguish between jihadists and Western-backed opponents to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Merkel's chief of staff Peter Altmaier told a German daily last week that "we are not vulnerable to blackmail on Ukraine".

But Andreas Umland of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kiev said a "change in attitude" was apparent in the European Union approach toward Ukraine.

And Ukrainian political analyst Yevgen Magda accused Merkel and Hollande -- both staking their political reputations by forcing the warring sides to agree to the deal's terms -- to "find a way to prolong the agreement and save face".

The Paris talks were followed by Kiev and the Lugansk fighters announcing the start of a smaller arms withdrawal from the "line of contact" splitting rebel lands from the rest of Ukraine.

But the pull-back agreement was reached days before the Paris negotiations and cannot be directly attributed to either Merkel or Hollande.