Ukraine-Russia peace hopes rise as gas deal nears
Ukraine reported progress Friday on its gas dispute with Russia, raising hopes of an EU-backed resolution of the broader conflict between the Soviet-era allies that has left 3,600 people dead since March.
The announcement caused some surprise after a first round of talks early in the day between Putin, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, and leaders from Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the EU showed them to be on completely different wavelengths.
While Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was "really positive" about the outcome, Moscow shot back that some of Putin's interlocutors "demonstrated complete unwillingness to understand the reality in southeastern Ukraine."
A second set of talks involving only the two principal players plus France and Germany appeared to yield more advances, however.
Optimism was further bolstered when Putin and Poroshenko met for a third time in the space of 10 hours late in the afternoon -- this time on their own.
"We have some progress on the gas issue," Poroshenko said after the second round of talks.
He said the "basic parameters" of a new contract with Russia had been agreed but acknowledged further discussion on how to finance it was required.
European Union-brokered talks with Ukraine and Russia have produced a deal whereby cash-strapped Kiev would pay $3.1 billion (2.4 billion euros) in unpaid bills to Moscow by end-October, with a new contract to cover subsequent deliveries.
If confirmed at further talks due in Brussels Tuesday, this could represent a real advance, especially after Putin had threatened earlier this week to cut supplies completely if no agreement was reached.
Russia accounts for around one third of the EU's consumption and previous disruptions, in 2006 and 2009, led to sharp spikes in prices.
- Hollande sees real advances -
French President Francois Hollande said a gas deal was "within reach" and claimed progress on the implementation of a ceasefire and peace accord reached in Minsk between Kiev and pro-Russian rebels in early September.
"There has been progress," Hollande said. "We have not reached the end yet but there are good things, including gas."
According to the French president, Ukraine and Russia reconfirmed their commitment to the Minsk accords, agreed to speed up prisoner exchanges and to the principle of border monitoring by the OCSE, including through the use of satellites and drones.
Crucially, October 26 elections in Ukraine should be able to take place in rebel-controlled territory, in line with the Minsk provisions, Hollande said.
The rebels have promised to hold their own elections in the parts of eastern Ukraine they control, rejecting Kiev's writ and making Russia's stance on this key issue all the more important.
"What we have achieved... while not a definitive resolution of the crisis, marks progress which will be confirmed in the coming days," Hollande said.
More than 3,600 people have died in fighting in eastern Ukraine since Russia annexed Crimea in March, punishing its former Soviet satellite Ukraine for having turned its back on Moscow in favour of ties with the European Union.
- ASEM summit overshadowed -
The diplomatic exchanges over Ukraine took place on the sidelines of an Asia-Europe (ASEM) summit completely overshadowed by a crisis which has also claimed Asian victims.
Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte met Putin to demand "maximum cooperation" with an investigation into the July shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, which cost nearly 300 lives, more than half of them Dutch.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, whose country had 38 citizens or residents on board, also raised the issue with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, saying Moscow "has not been as cooperative as we would have expected".
- Thai leader in global bow -
Ukraine apart, the most notable feature of the summit was the presence of Thai junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha, attending his first global gathering since grabbing power in a May military coup which the EU condemned.
In a sign that the international community appears to have accepted that Prayut will be around for some time to come, he was granted a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The summit was also marked by a symbolically significant handshake between Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
The brief encounter raised hopes of an easing of recent tensions between the East Asian powers but the small step in Milan was quickly overshadowed by a new row over the past as China reacted angrily to a mass visit by Japanese lawmakers to a controversial war shrine in Tokyo.
The next ASEM summit, due in 2016, will be held in Mongolia.
© 2014 AFP