German, French leaders head for Moscow to press for Ukraine peace

The coordinated trip by Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Francois Hollande to see Russia’s Vladimir Putin followed five hours of late-night talks with Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv, reports.

Asked by reporters in Paris on Friday how the talks went, Hollande said: “It’s the first step.” Merkel, back in Berlin, said it was unclear whether the meeting in Moscow would secure a ceasefire and whether there would be further talks.

Their initiative follows fierce fighting and territorial gains in eastern Ukraine by Russian-backed separatists since a peace blueprint was agreed in Belarus in September. The Ukrainian military reported that two more soldiers had been killed in the past 24 hours in the east, with 26 wounded.

A statement on Poroshenko’s website said the sides had expressed the hope that “Russia had an interest in” a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

The German, French and Ukrainian leaders had called for a quick ceasefire, the withdrawal of foreign forces from Ukraine, the pull-back of heavy weapons and equipment, the closure of the border and the release of all prisoners, the statement on Poroshenko‘s website said.

Though details of the peace deal were under wraps, much might depend on whether Ukraine is being pressed to acknowledge existing front lines as the new negotiating reality – and whether Kyiv would accept this.

German government sources said on Thursday the key problem for resuming peace talks was that current front lines no longer tally with what was agreed at talks in Minsk, Belarus, last year.

One idea was that a new attempt at a ceasefire should take in the current front lines, which reflect rebel gains, without Kyiv having to give up its claim to these areas as part of the Ukrainian state. 

German government sources continued to say however on Friday that the Minsk talks last September were still the basis for negotiations – the view also of Kyiv, France and the United States.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk said on Thursday that Kyiv would not consider any peace plan that cast doubt on the nation’s territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence.

The growing military pressure has shaken the Ukrainian economy and driven a debate over the possibility of the United States providing Kyiv’s hard-pressed army with arms.

NATO says Russia has provided vital support to the rebels in the shape of weapons, funds and troops, something denied by Moscow.

Speaking after meeting Poroshenko in Kiev on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington supported diplomacy, but would “not close our eyes” to Russian tanks and troops crossing the border. U.S. President Barack Obama will decide soon whether to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons to fight the separatists, Kerry said., following Reuters

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