John Kerry calls on Russia to withdraw from eastern Ukraine

Speaking at the annual ministerial council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a two-day session held in Belgrade, Serbia, the U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry called on Russia to withdraw its troops and equipment from eastern Ukraine so a peace deal can take effect by the end of the year.

“This is the time for concrete steps to end this disastrous and unnecessary conflict, and begin the process of rebuilding in Ukraine’s east,” Kerry said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was among several foreign ministers.

Kerry specifically called for the Russian withdrawal, free access for OSCE monitors, the holding of elections, the return of Ukrainian control over its border with Russia and the release of all hostages and prisoners.

Kerry was repeating an assertion he has made many times before. What was striking was the venue and the timing. By saying it again before the OSCE and their top diplomats, he made clear that the Ukraine conflict would be high on the agenda when he met with Lavrov shortly afterward.

The West has dangled the prospect of easing economic sanctions against Russia if it helps implement the peace deal negotiated in Minsk last February by the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. It expires on Dec. 31, and U.S. officials say there is little chance the deadline will be met.

The United States says Russia continues to provide separatists with arms and troops in what’s known as the Donetsk Basin region, which in turn ensures the fighting continues sporadically. Moscow denies the charge, though both Kiev and Washington have released photographs suggesting otherwise.

The West said sanctions against Russia, in effect since it annexed Crimea in 2014 and further strengthened since then, can be eased if Russia takes steps that allow the Minsk agreement to take effect.

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