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Leaders locked in Minsk talks on Ukraine ceasefire
Russian, Ukrainian, German and French officials, as well as separatist leaders and officials from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OECD) are locked in talks in Minsk trying to smooth the way for a summit deal leading to the demilitarisation of eastern Ukraine.
The leaders of the four countries are expected to meet in the Belarusian capital on Wednesday in an attempt to secure a ceasefire in the region, where pro-Russia separatists have been expanding the territory under their control in recent weeks.
Fighting raged in east Ukraine on Tuesday as both sides tried to make territorial gains before the proposed summit, which is being billed as a last chance to prevent the conflict from spiralling out of control.
The town of Kramatorsk, headquarters of Ukraine's "anti-terrorism operation" and well inside Kiev-controlled territory, was hit with rockets apparently fired from separatist positions. At least seven civilians were reported dead and 26 injured in the attack, which also wounded 10 Ukrainian servicemen.
Fighting continued around the railway hub of Debaltseve, scene of the worst exchanges in recent weeks. The rebels are attempting to encircle several thousand Ukrainian troops based in the town.
Ukrainian forces staged an offensive around the port city of Mariupol, with volunteers launching an attack on rebel checkpoints outside the city and allegedly pushing back separatist lines.
The mood in the west is gloomy despite the most intensive bout of diplomacy on the Ukraine crisis in a year, amid expectations that securing a deal that might stem the worsening bloodshed will entail making concessions to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
"No one is saying that the plan cannot be changed," said a senior European diplomat briefed on the summit preparations. He referred to a previous accord reached in Minsk last September that was never observed.
Since then, the separatists have expanded their control of territory around their strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk by hundreds of square kilometres. Putin is expected to insist that any new demarcation line agreed on Wednesday incorporates these territorial gains.
Before heading to Minsk on Wednesday, Angela Merkel, the main negotiator with Putin, has been in Moscow, Munich and Washington in the last few days seeking to engineer a breakthrough.
The German chancellor has been frank about the prospects of failure, reflecting the collapse of her trust in Putin. German officials say Merkel's "deep disappointment" with the Russian president has reached the stage where it could take a decade to repair the damage.
"Putin has managed to alienate Russia's key ally and partner in Europe, Germany," said a former senior EU official involved in several of the main diplomatic crises of recent years.
The summit brings together Putin and Merkel along with Poroshenko and President François Hollande of France. Pro-Russia separatist leaders are also expected to attend, although it is not clear if they will be included in the negotiations. Putin is demanding that the rebels and the Ukrainian government be treated as equals and that they negotiate directly with one another.
Putin and Merkel, both known to devour the fine detail of the situation in eastern Ukraine, and both of whom speak one another's languages, are the main players. Putin, who delivered a nine-page "peace plan" last week, hopes to entrench the line of division between his proxies in eastern Ukraine and the Kiev government while demanding that central government budget funds be restored to the secessionist areas outside its control. The Kremlin is pushing for western assent to far-reaching autonomy for the rebel regions and "special relations" with Russia.
In the interests of a truce, Merkel may have to accede to a new line of division. She will call for a deep demilitarised zone on either side of the line, the withdrawal of all heavy weapons, and monitoring of the line and of the Russia-Ukraine border by neutral forces, probably the OSCE.
Senior diplomats say a key point will be agreeing on the sequencing of the various moves aimed at stabilising the conflict.
Merkel talked to Barack Obama at the White House on Monday and the Germans are said to be satisfied that the US president will not press the divisive issue of supplying arms to the Ukrainians, vehemently opposed by Berlin.
The Germans are also preparing for failure in Minsk, with Merkel warning of the possible need for tougher and broader economic sanctions against Russia. While Britain is pushing hard for such a move, it would be difficult to secure an EU consensus of 28 governments for an escalation of sanctions.
The main EU sanctions on Russian banks and companies have to be renewed by July by consensus. That might be achieved but a new wave of sanctions is unlikely, senior EU officials say. EU foreign ministers agreed on more minor penalties on Monday, extending a blacklist of separatists and Russian officials by 19 names, but held off from implementing new sanctions until next week pending the outcome of the Minsk summit.
For Merkel and the west, success in Minsk will chiefly consist of halting the bloodshed, but at the cost of tacitly acceding to a new frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine that leaves the region at the mercy of the Russians for the foreseeable future.
[Source: By Ian Traynor in Brussels and Shaun Walker in Moscow, The Guardian, London, 10Feb15]
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