Ben Aris in Moscow -
It may not be the last chance for peace, but there hasn't been a better time than this in the last few months. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande is sitting down with Russian President Vladimir Putin late on February 6 to hammer out a deal that would head off a US plan to start arming the Ukrainians, which could escalate the conflict in East Ukraine.
The stakes are high and the deal will be hard to strike. Diplomats say the meeting, which started at 19:30 Moscow time is expected to go late into the night or even longer.
In a repeat of the plane-hopping diplomacy seen in the run-up to the Minsk summit in September that put the first ceasefire into place, Merkel and Hollande spent the day with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko before getting back on their planes and flying up to Moscow to meet Putin.
In September, Merkel flew to Kyiv alone ahead of the Minsk summit to meet with Poroshenko and laid the down the law on what the rest of Europe was expecting from that peace summit. Presumably this time round Merkel, now accompanied by Hollande, have had a similar meeting and thrashed out the framework of a new deal with Poroshenko to bring the fighting to an end that they are now, as this is being written, trying to sell to Putin.
But it is not going to be easy. Hollande has emerged in the last month as one of the most outspoken EU proponents for peace and said going into the meeting that he hoped "a deal could be struck". However, while Merkel has insisted that there is no military solution to the Ukrainian crisis, she has been a lot more pessimistic and said she was "not sure a deal could be struck".
Clearly Merkel and Hollande are going for a big push to bring this to a close and given the diplomatic momentum that has built going into this meeting, this represents a golden opportunity to start walking this clash backwards.
There is also speculation in the Russian press and some international media that the EU leaders are attempting to head off the US and end the fighting before the US Congress forces President Barack Obama to start arming Ukraine with "defence weapons". If these talks fail, then the odds that US arms will be sent to Ukraine will grow. However, as bne IntelliNews wrote in a blog, giving Ukraine better arms would not necessarily bring about an end to the conflict; in fact it would probably only prolong it. US military aid would allow the Ukrainian forces to better defend themselves, but not give them any decisive advantage to actually end the confrontation. And Russia would be bound to reply in kind. The prospects of an accidental slide into a full-blown war between Russia and Ukraine is frighteningly close.
This is the last thing that the European leaders want, given the weakness of the Eurozone economy, which has required that the European Central Bank (ECB) launch its own version of quantitative easing this month. The last thing Western Europe needs is a bloody and destabilising major military conflict in it is own backyard.
Keeping the peace
There is a chance that a deal can be done. There are reports that Putin sent Merkel a letter February 6 ahead of the meeting that outlines proposals for a UN peacekeeping force to mediate between the pro-Russian separatists rebels and Ukraine, something that Poroshenko is said to be uncomfortable with.
Moreover, the distance between the two sides is not that wide. Apart from the issue of the annexation of Crimea (which most European politicians seem to be ignoring), Putin's key demands include a "100% guarantee" that Ukraine will not join Nato. However, Hollande repeated only this week that Ukraine's membership of Nato is not on the cards.
And the second point that Russia is insisting on is if Ukraine does a trade deal with the EU, this should be done as three-way talks with Russia, which has significant trade and economic interests in Ukraine – something that Merkel has already conceded ahead of the Minsk talks.
However, before the EU and Russia can get to these points (significantly, Ukraine is being left out of the key negotiations) more basic questions of where the line of demarcation between Ukraine’s forces and the rebels should be drawn need to be agreed at the meeting. The glimmer of hope that today will bring some sort of "end of the beginning" of peace is that Merkel has proven a past master of the tricky diplomatic negotiations – and she knows Putin like no other leader in the world.
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