Leaders meet to consolidate Ukraine's fragile peace
The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine met in Paris on Friday to consolidate a fragile peace in Ukraine, as President Vladimir Putin eyes relief from punishing sanctions over Moscow's role in the conflict.
Fighting has all but stopped in separatist eastern Ukraine but with peace closer than ever, the 17-month conflict risks being overshadowed by Russia's dramatic intervention in the Syrian war.
Putin arrived at the Elysee Palace for talks with Hollande who, while smiling, appeared to give him a more restrained greeting than German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukraine's leader Petro Poroshenko who the French president warmly embraced.
The French and Russian leaders discussed the Syrian conflict in a one-on-one meeting before focus shifted to the long-planned talks on Ukraine's conflict which has left more than 8,000 dead.
The four leaders began by taking coffee together on a sunny terrace to discuss a conflict that sent relations between Moscow and the West plunging to their lowest level since the Cold War.
Hollande -- who also held a brief one-on-one with Poroshenko in which he accepted an invitation to visit Ukraine -- underlined that the talks were taking place in a "different context" than previous meetings.
After repeated violations of previous truces, the latest ceasefire, called last month, has been largely observed by pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces.
"I guarantee we won't be spending the night here," Hollande told his Ukrainian counterpart, referring to the 17-hour talks between the four leaders in February which produced a peace deal known as Minsk II.
While the fighting in Ukraine has largely stopped and the warring sides this week agreed to withdraw light weapons from a buffer zone between their forces, they are still far from agreeing on a lasting political solution to the crisis.
- Rebel elections -
"I am counting on the fact that the Minsk accords will be carried out, which unfortunately today is not the case," Putin said Thursday.
"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."
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.
Under the Minsk agreement, pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine are 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 separatist rebels launched an uprising in March 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea, seeking to similarly break away from Kiev after a pro-EU government took power there.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of covertly supporting the rebels with troops and weapons, a claim Moscow denies.
The rebels, who now seek greater autonomy within a united Ukraine, want to hold local elections on their own terms, which include barring all pro-Kiev candidates and holding the polls on separate days to those planned in the rest of Ukraine.
Ukraine wants the "fake" rebel elections to be cancelled immediately.
Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko have said the rebel-planned elections would be a "red line" as the EU evaluates lifting sanctions against Russia at the end of the year, an official told AFP.
- 'We are going to need Russia' -
While Russia's direct intervention in Syria this week further grated Western leaders who have criticised his military targets, it also increases his importance as a potential ally in the devastating four-year Syrian conflict.
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.
And some in Europe, which is 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."
© 2015 AFP