German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande are holding emergency talks in Moscow with Vladimir Putin in a last-ditch effort to stave off a deeper confrontation with the Russian leader over Ukraine.
Merkel and Hollande, whose arrival in the snowy Russian capital as darkness fell was shown live on TV, were whisked off to meet Putin behind closed doors at his official residence within the Kremlin. The two leaders will push him to implement the Minsk cease-fire agreement from last September, two people familiar with the matter said.
Merkel is pessimistic about Putin’s willingness to defuse the crisis and plans to deliver the message that Russia faces tougher actions unless he agrees to help end the escalating violence in Ukraine, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified discussing government strategy. The three took a break after about two hours to pose for pictures around a small table, where Putin could be overheard talking quietly in German to Merkel, before continuing their meeting with aides.
“As the German chancellor, I would never go behind the back of another country, in this case Ukraine, and start questioning its territorial integrity -- that is completely ruled out,” Merkel told reporters earlier in Berlin. “We don’t know if we’ll be successful today or if further talks will be needed.”
It’s unclear how long the talks will last or whether the leaders will brief reporters afterward.
Pessimism prevailed on all sides ahead of the meeting. Merkel sees little chance of getting Putin to change his mind; officials in the Obama administration say there’s little anyone can do to stop pro-Russian separatists from seizing more territory; and in Moscow, policy makers are increasingly coming to the view that the war-torn Donetsk and Luhansk regions will eventually cede from Ukraine.
Hanging over the talks is the prospect of deeper sanctions on Russia, an economic collapse in Ukraine and the risk that the conflict descends into a proxy war. While Merkel has rejected arming the Ukrainian army and President Barack Obama is said to be skeptical, some officials and diplomats in Washington are openly discussing the idea.
“The failure of this mission will bring the whole situation closer to a very dangerous crossroads,” Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, said by phone from Munich. “One direction away from this crossroads will lead to the armament of Ukrainian armed forces by the U.S., which would bring the whole conflict to a much higher level of escalation.”
Heavy fighting has forced more than 1.5 million people to flee their homes, with some 600,000 Ukrainians having sought refuge in neighboring countries since last February, the United Nations’ refugee agency said in a report on Friday. While authorities are evacuating civilians from the Donetsk region, many are still trapped by the fighting, including in basements and buildings under constant bombardment, the agency said.
Ukraine has transported about 5,000 people in the last two weeks from the cities of Debaltseve and Avdiyivka, which have come under heavy shelling, said Olena Milyutina, spokeswoman for Donetsk regional government.
“We are evacuating people from Debaltseve in armored buses which were sent from Kiev,” Milyutina said by phone. “They are carrying food, medicine into Debaltseve and are taking people out.”
Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies claim Russia is supporting militias with hardware, cash and troops, accusations the Kremlin has repeatedly denied. Russia says Ukraine is waging war against its own citizens and discriminating against Russian speakers, a majority in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Merkel is changing course and going to see Putin -- she had previously said she’d only meet with the Russian president if concrete results could be expected -- because of the deteriorating situation, the person said.
“This isn’t about us making a new offer,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Berlin. “Rather, it’s that we have an enormous interest in making sure that the conflict in eastern Ukraine doesn’t escalate further.”
Merkel’s decision to go with Hollande -- first to Kiev on Thursday and now the Russian capital -- was a spontaneous reaction to the dire turn of events and not the result of any talks where an historic agreement is expected, the person said.
“There are possibilities but there are also risks,” Hollande said earlier today in Paris. “It’s an initiative we had to take for peace so that we don’t have any regrets.”