Leaders meet to consolidate Ukraine's fragile peace
The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine meet in Paris on Friday to consolidate a fragile peace in Ukraine, with the conflict overshadowed by President Vladimir Putin's dramatic intervention in the Syrian war.
Fighting has all but stopped in separatist eastern Ukraine and with peace closer than ever, leaders are seeking a lasting political solution to the 17-month conflict that has left more than 8,000 people dead.
The main points of contention are the holding of local elections in eastern Ukraine, ensuring access for international observers to pro-Russian 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 on 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."
But observers fear Moscow's engagement in Syria will divert attention from the peace process at this crucial time.
"It's obvious" that developments in Syria will "influence the climate" of the long-planned Ukraine talks, a member of French President Francois Hollande's entourage told AFP.
Ukrainian officials fear that by making himself an important player in Syria, Putin is hoping to leverage a better deal on Ukraine -- particularly an easing of painful economic sanctions that were imposed after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula last year.
And some European leaders, overwhelmed by the refugee crisis sparked by Syria's conflict, appear keen to smooth things over with Russia to make cooperation easier.
"Of course the Minsk accords must be fully implemented, but step-by-step we must also lift sanctions," said German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel in an interview with Spiegel Online.
"We are going to need Moscow, not only in Syria but also to resolve numerous other conflicts in the world. And Russia needs us."
Chancellor Angela Merkel's office, however, has said the Syrian and Ukrainian cases could not be linked.
In Paris, Putin began his day with talks with Hollande and he will meet Merkel to discuss Syria.
- Rival elections -
But the main order of the day is ironing out kinks in the peace process in Ukraine, at an afternoon summit between the trio and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
After repeated violations of previous truces, the latest ceasefire, called last month, has been largely observed by pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine and the rebels this week agreed to withdraw light weapons from the buffer zone between their forces.
However, the warring sides have yet to find a lasting political solution to the crisis that sent relations between Moscow and the West plunging 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.
Ukraine wants the "fake" rebel elections to be cancelled immediately for the peace process to continue, said Kiev presidency official Kostiantyn Yeliseyev.
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.
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.
© 2015 AFP