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Inconclusive end to emergency summit on Ukraine summit in Moscow
An emergency summit between Russia, Germany and France aimed at containing the spread of the Ukraine conflict ended inconclusively on Friday night, with agreement only to work on a draft ceasefire.
Angela Merkel and François Hollande spent more than two hours in the Kremlin with Vladimir Putin before leaving for Moscow airport without comment.
But a German government spokesman said that there was at least agreement to work on a joint truce document that would be based on earlier ceasefire terms agreed in September in Minsk but never implemented.
"On the basis of a proposal by Germany's chancellor and France's president, a possible joint document to implement the Minsk agreement will now be worked on," Steffen Seibert said in a statement after the talks in Moscow.
According to European diplomat Putin had suggested reviving the Minsk agreement but with different ceasefire lines that recognised the territorial gains made by Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since the abortive Minsk deal. However, that suggestion was rejected by Kiev.
The Russian president's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the talks involved the three leaders around a table, without delegations, aides or experts. Despite the late start, there seemed little chance of the talks going to a second day, as Putin's press service announced that he would spend Saturday in Sochi attending an "anniversary ice show" to celebrate one year since the start of the Winter Olympics.
As the day went on it became increasingly clear that Merkel and Hollande had come to Moscow without a comprehensive plan. Instead, they had a response to proposals Putin sent them in letters earlier in the week, in which he envisaged an expansion of territory under rebel control.
However, Ukraine is insisting that any new ceasefire agreement should be based on the front lines Russia agreed to in a truce brokered in Minsk last September.
The German and French leaders met Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, in Kiev on Thursday evening on their way to Moscow. They promised him that any new peace deal would involve guarantees of Ukraine's territorial integrity.
The Moscow talks took place amid rising fears of an escalation in the fighting. A battle around the eastern Ukraine town of Debaltseve, a strategically important railway junction surrounded on three sides by separatist forces, was paused to allow civilians to leave by bus. On the ground, the ceasefire appeared to hold. The town, once of 20,000 people, has been the main target of a bloody rebel push.
According to Kiev and western capitals, the new offensive is being fuelled by Russian arms supplies and manpower.
The Ukrainian government is appealing for western weapons to help it hold off the assault. "The peace in Europe depends on peace in Ukraine," Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine's prime minister said in a tweet. "And to get peace, Ukraine needs to have a capacity to defend itself."
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, has said Washington is weighing up whether to supply arms to the Ukraine government but the suggestion has met with strong opposition from some western Europe governments, led by Germany. "Focusing merely on weapons could add fuel to the conflict and rather lead us away from a desired solution," the German defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, told a security conference in Munich on Friday. Von der Leyen argued that it would be smarter for western countries to use economic sanctions to inflict damage on the Putin regime. Ukraine's foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, said on Twitter the leaders discussed "steps so that the Minsk agreement can start working".
Kerry sounded lukewarm about Merkel and Hollande's visit. He said Putin had sent "a couple of ideas" and the pair had come up with a response. Kerry also said America wanted a diplomatic solution but was reviewing all options, including "providing defensive systems to Ukraine". US officials are concerned that Putin will use European eagerness to stop the fighting to consolidate his hold on Crimea.
The chances of a breakthrough hinge on establishing a durable ceasefire, according to senior officials.
Putin was said to be refusing to negotiate with Poroshenko, after making fresh proposals to Kiev 48 hours ago.
A senior British army officer has urged the British government to support a deterrent against Russian forces. General Sir Richard Shirreff, the leading British commander in Nato until last March, told BBC Radio 4's Today that a strong message needed to be sent to Putin if mainland Europe was to avoid "total war".
"Unless Nato speaks from a position of strength, we are gifting the advantage to Mr Putin," Shirreff said. "Wars start as a result of weakness, not of strength."
[Source: By Shaun Walker in Moscow, Julian Borger in Munich and Ian Traynor in Brussels, The Guardian, London, 06Feb15]
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