It has been a busy few days for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who spent the tail end of the week in Europe both to bolster the Kremlin’s influence in Belgrade and attempt rapprochement with the EU in Milan.
So busy, in fact, that he kept both the German Chancellor and the former Italian President waiting well into the night before gracing them with his presence.
Given that Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is under partial house arrest for a tax fraud conviction, he probably was not too displeased at having to wait until 1am for his old skiing buddy. But there may have been less sympathy from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had to hang around until midnight for a meeting originally scheduled at 8pm on Thursday.
If this was Mr Putin’s charm offensive aimed at convincing EU leaders to ease sanctions on Russia, it got off to a shaky start, and appeared to continue in the same vein. The following day after talks between the Russian leader and his Ukrainian and EU counterparts, Ms Merkel emerged with bad news about the stand-off between Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine and the government in Kiev. “I cannot see a breakthrough here at all so far,” she told reporters.
The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov gave a similar assessment: “The talks are indeed difficult, full of misunderstandings [and] disagreements.”
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
There was some optimism as talks went into the evening yesterday on the sidelines of an Asia-Europe meeting in Milan. Mr Putin and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko reached a tentative deal on a dispute over gas supplies, but Western leaders were clear that Moscow still had a lot to do to firm up a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March and the alleged presence of Russian troops and tanks supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine have sent Russia’s relations with the West back to the frosty days of the Cold War. In an attempt to force Russia to intervene and end the conflict, the EU and the US have imposed sanctions on Russian businesses, individuals and sectors of the economy. Those sanctions are beginning to bite and Mr Putin may have been hoping that his brokering of a ceasefire last month in Minsk would help soften the EU’s stance.
But deadly violations of the truce continue. “If you look at the scorecard of whether Minsk is being respected and adhered to, we’re still a very long way off delivery,” said one EU diplomat. “At the moment there is no appetite to roll back [the sanctions], and no particular appetite to move forward.”
This is leading to fears that Ukraine will become a frozen conflict, battering the nation’s economy and leaving a borderline failed state right on the EU’s doorstep for years to come. Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat now working for the Estonia-based International Centre for Defence Studies, believes that is exactly what the Kremlin wants. “The Russians play a much longer game,” he says. “They are destabilising to sustain influence and not lose Ukraine to the West, and getting ready to play for another day. We’re thinking this crisis is going to be over, we’re going to turn to Islamic State... They’re thinking, ‘The West is going to do exactly that, and when they [the West] fall back asleep, we’re going to be able to screw around again’.”
And Mr Putin clearly has his sights on expanding Moscow’s influence. He was late for Ms Merkel on Thursday because he was attending a military parade in Serbia. Belgrade has experienced years of difficult negotiations to try and join the EU, giving Mr Putin the opportunity to reassure Serbia’s leaders that there were other allies in the region.
As the talks in Milan dragged on, there was some progress on the gas issue. Russia has halted supplies to Ukraine over an argument about unpaid bills, raising fears of winter shortages and a disruption of supply to the EU. “We have agreed on the main parameters of the [gas] contract,” President Poroshenko said.
But Mr Bryza urged against being overly optimistic. “This meeting is in no way a thaw,” he told The Independent. “It is an attempt by President Putin to buy time at a moment when sanctions are hurting the Russian economy and his strength among the oligarchic groups.”Reuse content