Berlin Talks Aim To Revive Stalled Ukraine Peace Process
Top diplomats from Ukraine and Russia met their German and French counterparts in Berlin Monday seeking to revive long-stalled efforts to end the smouldering civil war in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukraine conflict, half-forgotten by the West amid other crises and its own divisions, has claimed over 10,000 lives and still sees daily clashes between pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces.
After over a year on the back burner as France, Germany and Russia have been caught up in their own elections, all three have now turned their focus back on Ukraine which goes to the polls next year.
At the start of the talks — the first between the quartet in 16 months — German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said they were hoping to reach “a ceasefire that deserves its name”.
Key aims include the withdrawal of heavy weapons along the frontline, the launch of de-mining operations, and generally “breathing new life” into the 2015 Minsk agreement that sought to end the fighting.
Maas said another new topic would be the eventual deployment of a UN peace-keeping mission in eastern Ukraine, but acknowledged that ideas on the issue “are far apart”.
While Moscow favours blue-helmet troops only along the frontline, Kiev would want them to also police the Ukraine-Russian border to prevent soldiers and weapons from crossing.
The UN Security Council last week condemned “continuous violations of the ceasefire” and “the tragic humanitarian situation” on the frontline.
“I have no illusions — the new start will be difficult,” Maas told Bild daily.
On Friday, his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that, given the daily death toll, “the credibility of the current peace process is at stake”.
– Putin-Poroshenko phone call –
The Berlin meeting is an attempt to restore dialogue between the two sides, even as they blame each other for the ongoing conflict.
In a rare phone call Saturday to prepare for the meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko discussed an “exchange of people being held” by both sides.
But given the deepening distrust between the West and Russia, hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough are low.
After a popular Ukrainian uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed president in Kiev in 2014, Russia moved to annex the Crimea peninsula, backing insurgents in the former Soviet state.
Brussels responded to the territorial grab with a series of asset freezes and travel bans as well as stinging economic sanctions, with Moscow retaliating in kind.
Since then, the US and European powers have accused Moscow of using hackers and propaganda to sow discord, meddle in elections and back eurosceptics and rightwing populists, as well as ramping up military posturing to threaten eastern European states.
And in 2015, Russia entered into Syria’s brutal civil war, defying the West by unleashing a bombing campaign in support of Bashar al-Assad.
Relations hit a new low in March when many western states expelled Russian diplomats over Moscow’s alleged involvement in the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain.
– Seeking EU divisions? –
Putin, who was re-elected to a fourth term in March, has denied all the charges and argued forcefully that hostile NATO powers are seeking to demonise and weaken Russia.
Moscow also accused Kiev of spreading “bizarre” fake news after Ukraine’s secret service last month staged the murder of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, claiming it did so to foil a Russian plot on his life.
Heightening tensions, Putin on Thursday warned that any military “provocations” during World Cup football tournament which Russia is hosting, would have “very severe consequences for Ukraine as a state”.
Russia’s main goal is the lifting of damaging economic sanctions, a push aided by the rise of sympathetic populist parties in the EU, most recently in Italy.
On a visit last week to conservative Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose far-right junior coalition partners back Russia’s claim of sovereignty over Crimea, Putin denied any wish to “divide” the EU bloc.
France and Germany agree that any sanctions relief for Russia must be conditional on advances in the Ukraine peace process.