Merkel leads last chance Ukraine peace drive
German Chancellor Angela Merkel Saturday championed last chance efforts to end the Ukraine conflict while warning success was far from certain as Kiev said rebels were massing for a new offensive.
As fresh fighting in eastern Ukraine saw five civilians and five government soldiers reported killed in 24 hours Merkel insisted that sending more weapons would not resolve the conflict.
“I can’t conceive of a situation where better armaments for the Ukrainian army would so impress President Putin that he believes he will militarily lose,” Merkel told the Munich Security Conference.
The German leader came to Munich from overnight Moscow talks she and French President Francois Hollande held with Russian President Vladimir Putin to thrash out new peace proposals.
“It is uncertain whether it will lead to success, but from my point of view and that of the French president it is definitely worth trying,” she said of the Franco-German initiative.
Hollande for his part said the stakes could not be higher and the new peace plan was “one of the last chances” to halt the 10-month-old conflict.
“If we fail to find a lasting peace agreement, we know the scenario perfectly well — it has a name, it is called war,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he believed the new proposals could help end the conflict, all the while charging the United States and the European Union with having escalated the conflict at every turn.
“These talks will continue as you know; we believe there is every possibility that we will reach a result and agree the recommendations that will allow the sides to really untie this knot of a conflict,” Lavrov told an MSC panel.
In that case, Russia would be ready to guarantee the outcome, he added.
– Fresh tanks, rocket launchers –
Far from the diplomatic corridors, fighting raged in the east of the former Soviet satellite state, where some 5,400 people have been killed since the start of the conflict in April, according to the United Nations.
Rebels are “accumulating forces for further offensive operations on Debaltseve and Mariupol,” Ukrainian defence official Volodymyr Polyovyi told journalists.
The separatists were sending fresh tanks, armoured personnel carriers as well as multiple launch rocket systems to the Debaltseve region and Granitne, around 35 kilometres (20 miles) northeast of Mariupol, Polyovyi said.
Debaltseve — mid-way between rebel centres Donetsk and Lugansk — has been the focus of fierce fighting for over a week as insurgent fighters try to encircle government troops holding the strategic railway hub.
Separatist fighters in January fired rockets at the strategic government-held port city of Mariupol, whose capture could open up a land bridge from Russia to Crimea.
Missile fire on Saturday hit Debaltseve a day after a brief truce allowed hundreds of civilians to flee, government officials said.
Amnesty International said earlier this week that most of the town’s former population of 25,000 had fled, but that around 7,000 civilians remain behind.
An AFP journalist in the main rebel city of Donetsk said that the sounds of heavy explosion could be heard around the city Saturday.
– Gloves off –
Recent gains by the increasingly well-armed pro-Russian rebels have driven growing calls to take the gloves off and supply weapons to Kiev as western sanctions have failed to change Russia’s mind.
Merkel rejected this idea as dangerously unrealistic and stressed that “I am of the firm conviction that there is no military solution to the conflict.”
US Senator Lindsey Graham, member of the Senate Armed Services committee, said good US ally Merkel was “making a big mistake.”
The chancellor “can’t see how arming people who are willing to fight and die for their freedom makes things better. I do,” Graham said.
“I think it will increase the cost of the Russian intervention. I think it will let people in the world know, who struggle for their freedom, that we’re not just all talk.”
Merkel was due later Saturday to meet US Secretary of State John Kerry, Lavrov, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko and US Vice President Joe Biden as the tempo of diplomatic activity on the crisis picks up.
No details of the Moscow talks were released but the new plan appears to be based on the failed September Minsk ceasefire and peace accords which the West says Moscow never lived up to despite signing them.
“Work is under way to prepare the text of a possible joint document to implement the Minsk agreements,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, describing the Moscow talks as “substantial and constructive.”