MUNICH – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed Saturday to end the separatist conflict in the east of his country, where fighting between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian troops has killed more than 14,000 people since 2014.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Zelenskiy said he hopes to end the conflict by the end of his presidential term in 2024.
“If in five years, we will end the war, bring our people back, then I did (became president) for a reason,” he said.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine erupted in April 2014, weeks after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and has devastated the country's industrial heartland.
Thanking the United States for supporting Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, Zelenskiy expressed hope to “start afresh” Kyiv's relations with the U.S. now that proceedings for President Donald Trump's impeachment are over.
Ukraine and Zelenskiy were at the center of the impeachment hearings. In a phone call in July that triggered a congressional inquiry, Trump pressured Zelenskiy to investigate the involvement of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's son with Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company.
In Munich, Zelenskiy said he wants to visit the White House, and he invited Trump to Kyiv.
“We have a good relationship with the U.S., and I'm grateful to Americans for their support,” he said.
Zelenskiy, a 42-year-old comic actor with no political experience, won Ukraine's presidential election in 2019 on promises to end the fighting. He has expressed willingness to negotiate a peace agreement with Russia.
However, several contentious issues complicate the peace process, including Ukraine regaining control of its border and allowing elections that would give rebel-controlled regions more autonomy.
Zelenskiy said Saturday in Munich he wants local elections held across Ukraine, including certain areas of the east, in October. But the votes can't take place while fighting continues, he said.
“People in Donbass need elections that would be recognized as legitimate. But they can't be that if held not in accordance with Ukrainian laws, to the sound of gunfire and without (Kyiv's) control of Ukraine's border,” the president said.
Zelenskiy announced discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin in April about another exchange of prisoners. There are currently 200 Ukrainians held in the rebel-controlled areas, Zelenskiy said.
Yuras Karmanau in Minsk and Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed.