Top diplomats meet to try and save Ukraine peace summit
Foreign ministers from Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France met Monday in Berlin to try and resolve tensions threatening to scupper a planned summit on ending the Ukrainian conflict.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko hopes that a summit of the four countries can take place Thursday in Kazakhstan with the goal of signing a peace document with Russia.
The deal would commit Ukraine and Russia to implement fully a peace accord already signed in September but which pro-Russian separatist guerrillas and Ukrainian forces have violated repeatedly in a war that has already killed more than 4,700 people.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel informed Russian President Vladimir Putin and Poroshenko last weekend that the peace summit was pointless as long as a truce was not respected. France, which is the other major European broker in Ukraine peace negotiations, expressed similar reservations.
"The situation in Ukraine remains extremely tense," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier before starting the talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Ukraine's Pavlo Klimkin and Laurent Fabius of France.
"Because there is still no permanent ceasefire, people are dying in eastern Ukraine, and the humanitarian situation ... remains very worrying," Steinmeier said, stressing that "we still have no sustainable path out of the crisis".
"I don't know whether tonight will bring the necessary progress. I don't know whether tonight will bring the necessary degree of consensus that will allow us to continue working together in this format. All I know is that it would be wrong, now at the start of a new year, not to try."
- Mutual need for peace -
Both sides in Ukraine accuse each other of being at fault for the impasse.
The rebel stronghold of Donetsk -- a once bustling city of nearly a million that now stands half vacant and suffers chronic power and water shortages -- has been shaken by heavy artillery fire in the past week.
The Ukrainian government accuses the insurgents of escalating attacks to scuttle implementation of the September peace settlement. This would include forcing Russia to return control to Ukraine of a long section of border, inflicting a severe blow to the Russian-backed rebels' logistics.
Ukraine's armed forces said the militias attacked federal positions on 63 occasions since Sunday morning.
And illustrating the severity of the security situation, a partial power outage on Sunday in Donetsk left more than 300 miners trapped in one of Europe's largest coal mines for several hours with limited oxygen supplies.
Yet both Putin and Poroshenko are under pressure to cut a deal to end the rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
The war erupted last year shortly after crowds in Kiev overturned the country's Moscow-backed president. Russia then annexed the southern province of Crimea and insurgents in the east began their uprising.
Many Ukrainians want Poroshenko to restore control over the whole country, but the Ukrainian army is in tatters after years of underfunding and corruption.
The war is also draining what little remains of Ukraine's financial resources at the same time as the country tries to embark on tough internationally-backed economic reforms.
Putin -- his personal approval soaring but his country's economy shrinking for the first time since 2009 -- needs to scale down support for the pro-Russian insurgents in order to persuade the United States and EU governments to ease off on sanctions.
Some Europeans have expressed alarm over the potential security risks posed by the nuclear superpower's economic troubles.
"I think the sanctions must stop now," French President Francois Hollande said last week. "They must be lifted if there is progress."
However, Russia's Lavrov insisted Monday that Moscow's Ukraine policy would not depend on Western pressure.
"We were not the ones who got the sanctions ball rolling," Lavrov said before departing for Berlin. "This is their problem."
© 2015 AFP