Ukraine, Russia and Russia-backed separatists on Tuesday signed a tentative agreement on guidelines for holding a local election in eastern Ukraine, where a five-year conflict between the rebels and Ukrainian troops has killed more than 13,000 people. France and Germany, which help broker the talks, hailed the agreement.
Ukraine's newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has cast the deal as an intermediate step needed to organize a summit with the leaders of Russia, France and Germany to push for a peaceful settlement.
But participants in Sunday's rally denounced the move as a capitulation to Russia, which has backed the separatists. "Our soldiers have given their lives for a united Ukraine, and we don't want peace at any cost on Russia's conditions," said one of the demonstrators, Andriy Gnapko.
About 15,000, including veterans of fighting in the east, gathered on the Maidan, the main square in central Kyiv, under placards "Shame!" and "No to capitulation!" Some of the participants later marched to the parliament building and presidential headquarters.
"Ukraine has been at war for five years, and I lost several of my friends, and they are now telling us that all of it was in vain," said Ihor Roshchenko, a soldier. "One man can rob us of our country with his ill-considered steps."
Zelenskiy, a comedian with no political experience, was elected by a landslide in April on promises to combat the country's endemic corruption and end the spiraling war in the east. He remains widely popular, even though his image has been dented by a July 25 phone call in which U.S. President Donald Trump urged the Ukrainian leader to investigate the son of his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, a demand that has triggered a U.S. impeachment inquiry.
In an interview with Kyodo news agency published Sunday, Zelenskiy reaffirmed his denial that he was pushed by Trump. Zelenskiy strongly defended a plan for an election in the east, vowing that the vote will follow Ukrainian laws and include candidates from Ukrainian political parties. He emphasized that the election should be preceded by a lasting cease-fire and an exchange of all prisoners.
Last month, Zelenskiy initiated a prisoner exchange in which Ukraine and Russia freed 35 prisoners each — the biggest swap in years. He is now pushing for a pullback of Ukrainian and separatist forces from the front line to end continuing skirmishes. A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany provided for such withdrawal to set up a safe buffer zone, but both warring parties have failed to honor the demand.
Russia, hoping that the implementation of the Minsk agreement could open the door to easing the European sanctions, welcomed Zelenskiy's moves. It was Zelenskiy's predecessor Petro Poroshenko who signed the 2015 peace agreement that envisaged a sweeping autonomy for the separatist regions in the east and an amnesty for the rebels — a provision that was never implemented because it was resented by many In Ukraine.
The 2015 deal signed in Minsk, Belarus, also stipulated that Ukraine regains full control of its border with Russia only after the rebel regions receive broad autonomy and elect local leaders and legislatures. Ukraine and the West say Russia has backed the rebels with troops and weapons and the border has served as a conduit for them.
Now Poroshenko and his allies denounce Zelenskiy's push for a local election in the east as a surrender to Russia. The ex-president showed up at Sunday's rally on the Maidan, charging that an election in the east is in the Kremlin's interests.
"We must stand up against Putin's plan," he said. Poroshenko also spoke out against the planned pullback of forces from the front line in accordance with the 2015 deal, casting it as a Ukrainian "retreat."
"Zelenskiy's political opponents have been weakened, and they are trying to use any pretext to criticize him and win some points," said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Center, a Kiev-based think tank. "And the war is the best possible pretext."
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.