Ukraine peace talks in Paris overshadowed by Syria conflict
The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine meet in Paris Friday to consolidate a fragile peace in Ukraine, as Moscow -- now heavily engaged in the Syria conflict -- eyes relief from biting sanctions.
Talks on Ukraine come as the devastation on the edge of Europe has been overshadowed by a refugee crisis spurred by the war in Syria and Russia's dramatic military intervention there to support President Bashar al-Assad.
The Paris meeting will be the first time Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet Western leaders since launching air strikes in Syria -- in which he has been accused of targeting moderate opposition rebels rather than Islamic State jihadists.
However while Putin is to hold bilateral talks with French leader Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Syria, officials insist the main order of the day is ironing out kinks in the peace process in Ukraine, where fighting has all but stopped.
The main points of contention are the holding of local elections in separatist eastern Ukraine, ensuring access for international observers to rebel zones, and the removal of heavy weapons from the frontline.
"I am counting on the fact that the Minsk accords will be carried out, which unfortunately today is not the case," Putin said in Moscow Thursday, speaking about the peace deal struck in February.
"We are far from a resolution, but there are elements that boost our confidence that the crisis can be overcome and the most important point is that there is currently no shooting."
- Election 'bone of contention' -
After repeated violations of previous truces, the latest ceasefire, called last month, has been largely observed by pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces, raising hopes that a conflict that has left around 8,000 people dead in 17 months is drawing to a close.
On Wednesday, Ukraine and the rebels agreed to withdraw smaller weapons from the buffer zone between their forces.
However the warring sides have yet to find a lasting political solution to the crisis that plunged relations between Moscow and the West to their worst levels since the Cold War.
Despite Russian denials, Ukraine and the West accuse Moscow of covertly supporting the rebels with troops and weapons after an uprising installed a pro-EU government in Kiev last year.
Under the Minsk II agreement, eastern Ukraine is supposed to hold local elections by the end of the year and hand back control of the Russian border to the government in Kiev.
The pro-Russia rebels, however, want to hold local elections under their own terms, which include barring all pro-Ukrainian candidates and holding the polls on days that do not correspond to local elections planned in the rest of Ukraine on October 25.
"The question of the elections is the main bone of contention," a Russian diplomatic source said earlier this month.
Ukraine wants the "fake" rebel elections to be cancelled immediately for the peace process to continue, said Kiev presidency official Kostiantyn Yeliseyev.
He said Russia had requested a meeting between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Putin for Friday, which had not yet been decided.
- Putin's long game ? -
But Russia's direct intervention in the Syrian conflict has added a new and uncertain dimension to the negotiations.
"It's obvious" that developments in Syria will "influence the climate" of the long-planned Ukraine talks, a member of Hollande's entourage told AFP.
Observers have suggested that with his action in Syria, Putin is hoping to leverage a better deal on Ukraine -- particularly an easing of damaging economic sanctions that were imposed after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula last year.
"This is an absolutely absurd interpretation of what is happening," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday.
The sanctions were discussed in a three-way call Thursday between Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko, who insisted the rebel-planned elections would be a "red line", an official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The European Union is due to evaluate progress on the Minsk accords at the end of the year before deciding whether to maintain sanctions on Russia.
With European officials desperate for action to slow the numbers of refugees pouring out of Syria, some are tempted by a rapprochement with Russia.
"We can't keep long-running sanctions (against Russia) on the one hand, and ask to work together on the other," German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said this week.
However Chancellor Angela Merkel's office said the Syrian and Ukrainian cases could not be linked.
© 2015 AFP