Following a four-hour meeting in Moscow where Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, the two EU leaders headed off to Munich to present the as-yet unknown details of a new ceasefire plan to President Petro Poroshenko. A Russian presidential spokesman reportedly said there would be a four-way call involving all the leaders on February 8.
In carefully coordinated statements, all three participants described the meeting as "constructive and substantive", according to newswires, though others like The Guardian reported that the meeting “ended inconclusively on Friday night, with agreement only to work on a draft ceasefire”.
Speaking in Munich at a security conference on February 7, Merkel was quoted by newswires as saying: “It’s uncertain whether this [initiative] will be successful, but in my view and in the view of the French president, it’s at least worth making an attempt... I feel that we at least owe it to those affected in Ukraine."
“This conflict can’t be solved militarily,” she reiterated.
A German government spokesman was reported as saying that there was at least agreement to work on a joint truce document based on earlier ceasefire terms agreed in September in Minsk but never implemented.
Since the breakdown of that ceasefire, the pro-Russian separatists in East Ukraine have gained further territory and, backed by Russian armour and “volunteers”, look set to capture more. According to the UN, the fighting in eastern Ukraine that began in April 2014 has left nearly 5,400 Ukrainians dead and about 1.2mn have fled their homes.
Republicans in the US Congress are pushing for the White House to agree to start arming the Ukrainians to even up the fight. There is speculation that the EU leaders’ decision to visit Putin is an attempt to head off the US arming Ukraine with "defence weapons". If this latest initiative talks fail, then the odds are that US arms will start flowing to Ukraine.
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 getting closer all the time.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the three leaders would hold a four-way phone-call with Poroshenko on Sunday, February 8 to discuss the proposals.
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.
Putin's key demands also reportedly include a hard guarantee that Ukraine will not join Nato. Hollande repeated only this week that Ukraine's membership of Nato is not on the cards.
Russia also apparently wants in the event that Ukraine presses on with its trade deal with the EU, it should be done as three-way talks with Russia, which has significant trade and economic interests in Ukraine – something that Merkel already conceded ahead of the Minsk talks is possible.
However, before the EU and Russia can get to these points more basic questions of where the line of demarcation between Ukraine’s forces and the rebels should be drawn need to be agreed. Putin will want the fresh gains by the separatists to be cemented; Ukraine clearly will not.
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