Ukraine crisis: Political wrangles in Munich dash hopes of rapid peace deal

Shuttle diplomacy of Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande falters

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The hopes raised by the rush to Moscow by European leaders Angela Merkel and François Hollande on Friday to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin over an iteration of a peace plan for conflict-riven eastern Ukraine appeared all but dashed yesterday with political squabbling erupting again more than 1,000 miles away.  

At yesterday’s security conference in Munich, Ms Merkel gave a pessimistic assessment of talks following the deadlocked discussions with Mr Putin, while Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, presented a more idiosyncratic interpretation. It was clear that worlds were still far apart. Mr Lavrov’s extraordinary claim that Crimea had become “independent”  by means of the UN right of self-determination was met with loud, if nervous, laughter in Munich audience.

Ms Merkel made it clear that she was not sure that talks would succeed, “but it is, from my point of view and that of the French President, in any case worth making this attempt”. Their aim was to draw up a possible joint document on implementing the much-violated September peace plan concluded in Minsk, Belarus.

“This conflict cannot be resolved by military means,” Ms Merkel declared . “It is all the more important now to set out substantial steps that serve to fill with life the Minsk agreement.”

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Demonstrators in Munich took part in a protest titled "There is no Peace with NATO" outside the 51st Munich Security Conference

The recent resurgence in violence between Ukrainian troops and  pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine sparked the latest efforts to reach a diplomatic solution, as well as causing the US to consider sending arms to Ukraine. Western nations have repeatedly accused Moscow of backing the separatist rebels with forces and arms – a claim that Moscow has repeatedly denied with varying levels of credibility.

But Ms Merkel gave the idea of more military support from the US short shrift. “The problem is that I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily,” Ms Merkel said. “I have to put it that bluntly.”

For his part, Mr Hollande told France 2 television that the peace plan under negotiation would see a 50-70km demilitarised zone, and called for “rather strong” autonomy in the east. Together with Ms Merkel, he is due to discuss the peace plan with Vladimir Putin and the Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko by telephone today.

Mr Poroshenko, also in Munich yesterday, pushed for a quick ceasefire in the east, insisting the conflict must be resolved and not “frozen”, and pressing Kiev’s case to be supplied with defensive weapons. He also said there should be no increase in the area of a potential demilitarised zone, as Mr Hollande had suggested.

 

Mr Poroshenko said that Ukraine stands ready for a “comprehensive and immediate ceasefire” and that Russia should, too. Mr Lavrov stated that Russian was ready for this.

In the Ukrainian capital, political classes remain largely committed to what they see as a defensive war. Yesterday, the government claimed that separatists have intensified shelling of Ukrainian forces on all front lines, and appeared to be amassing forces for new offensives on the key transport hub town of Debaltseve and the coastal city of Mariupol. Military spokesmen reported that at least five Ukrainian soldiers had been killed on Friday into Saturday, with dozens more injured.

Andrei Teretuk, a former battalion commander and MP in Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s political block, told The Independent on Sunday that the Kiev elite was now “united against further escalation”, but that the Russian side were “playing another game”. Ukraine still needed to prepare for the worst, he warned: “If Russia won’t agree to recognising Ukrainian territory, then we will fight, and hard.”

Opinions among civilian Ukrainians are as varied as the people. But it seems clear that summer’s patriotic fervour, which demanded full engagement in the east at any cost, has dampened. Many more Ukrainian public figures now openly advocate formally cutting all ties to separatist-held territories, and their position appears to be gaining traction.

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Pro-Russian separatists have been accused of massing forces for fresh offensives (AFP)

“They hate us anyway,” said Irina Golovichova, 54, one of an estimated 1.5 million people to have fled the conflict zone. Mrs Golovichova, who left Lugansk for Kiev in November, said that locals had treated her with distrust and worse from the moment she arrived: “They say we are dirty, that we’ve come to plague the place, that we were responsible for the mess the country is now in”. Finding a flat is near impossible, she said: “Landlords hang up when they find out you’re from Donbass.”

The threat that Ukraine’s hybrid war might deteriorate further, along Bosnian lines, has tempered positions of some pro-Ukrainians living in the conflict region.“Tatyana Ryzhaya” [not her real name], a lawyer residing in government-held Kramatorsk, some 55 miles to the north of Donetsk, told The IoS that she did not think more Ukrainian soldiers should be sent “to die for Donbass”.

“I’m not worth the life of someone else’s child,” she said. “I can leave, I can stay; and, even if the separatists take over, I will find a way of coping. Perhaps it’s better for people like me to work from the underground.”

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