UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council adopted a statement Wednesday encouraging all parties in Ukraine to recommit to a 2015 peace agreement and expressing "grave concern" at deteriorating security in the volatile east.
Russia, which has veto power in the council, has been in a tug-of-war with Ukraine since Moscow's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in early 2014 and support for separatist rebels in the east. The conflict has killed more than 10,000 people.
But all 15 council members including Russia agreed on the presidential statement, which was an initiative of France and Germany and the first pronouncement by the U.N.'s most powerful body on Ukraine since January 2017.
France's U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre said Russia's agreement "is one of the reasons why the presidential statement is important ... and, of course, it makes a world of difference."
The 2015 peace agreement, signed in the Belarus capital of Minsk, has helped reduce hostilities, but U.N. political chief Rosemary DiCarlo told the council last week that "the relative calm that held in the early weeks of 2018 was followed in April and May by a sharp increase in the number of victims."
"The security situation on the ground remains volatile," she said. "The killing, destruction and immense suffering continues" and "eastern Ukraine is facing a serious humanitarian crisis."
Delattre said the presidential statement "sends a strong signal for the implementation of the Minsk agreements and the importance of the Normandy format," the forum for peace talks between Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France which have largely stalled.
"This is key," Delattre said, "as France and Germany are together leading efforts to relaunch a strong momentum in this direction."
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia welcomed the presidential statement, saying "It's been a long time since the council adopted anything on Ukraine and we are very happy that we managed to come together."
It is "very, very important" that the statement "confirms the validity — and the sole validity — of the Minsk agreements, which is the only platform to reach a political solution, a settlement," he told several reporters.
"And it is especially important today when the Minsk agreements are being sabotaged by some parties," Nebenzia said.
Last September, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed sending a U.N. peacekeeping force along the line separating the rebel-controlled territories and the area under Ukrainian government control where clashes occur.
The U.S. and Ukraine are concerned that this would solidify the line's status as the new de facto border between Ukrainian-controlled territory and separatist-controlled territory in the country's east and want peacekeepers deployed throughout the separatist-controlled regions stretching to the Ukraine-Russia border.
Nebenzia said any peacekeeping mission approved by the Security Council that would help implement the Minsk agreement would be fine — and he said that's what the Russian proposal would do.
But Nebenzia said other parties are proposing a peacekeeping mission that would substitute for the Minsk agreement "so that's the major problem."
In addition to backing the Minsk agreement, the presidential statement for the first time mentions the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine.
It welcomed the work of U.N. agencies in addressing "the tragic humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine" and emphasized "the need for scaling up efforts to alleviate suffering of the civilian population affected by the conflict."
The statement also expressed "full support" for experts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who monitor the repeatedly broken 2015 truce.
For the Netherlands, the statement's most important provision was the Security Council's reaffirmation of "full support" for the resolution it adopted days after the downing of a Malaysian passenger jet over Ukraine on July 17, 2014.
The resolution condemns the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, in the strongest terms and demands "that those responsible for this incident be held to account and that all States cooperate fully with efforts to establish accountability."
Last month, a Dutch-led international team of investigators said it had strong evidence that the Buk missile system that brought down the plane, killing all 298 people on board, came from a Russia-based military unit. The Netherlands and Australia announced immediately afterward that they were holding Moscow legally responsible for its role in the missile attack.
The Netherlands' U.N. Ambassador Karel Van Oosterom told reporters Wednesday the presidential statement means "the Russian Federation should fully cooperate with the criminal investigation, should accept responsibility for its part in the downing of MH17, and especially ... should enter into bilateral talks with the Netherlands and Australia to include justice and accountability."