Ukraine’s almost yearlong conflict enters a pivotal week, with the outcome of more talks on a peace agreement potentially determining whether a wider war can be avoided as violence escalates.
Discussions resume on Monday in Berlin aimed at preparing a summit for the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 11. Russian President Vladimir Putin said all sides must first agree on their positions before talks can take place.
The diplomatic effort comes as the U.S. and some European allies consider supplying arms to Ukrainian forces, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned of a deepening conflict that can’t be won militarily. A breakdown of negotiations would also strain transatlantic unity in dealing with Russia, as Europe’s consensus on economic sanctions shows signs of fraying.
“This is really just a desperate effort on the part of the West and Ukraine to keep hope alive and for Russia and the separatists to buy time for their next move and for moving in reinforcements,” said Joerg Forbrig, a senior program director at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “I don’t think these talks will result in a settlement. At the most there will be some kind of temporary cease-fire.”
Merkel and French President Francois Hollande stepped up peace efforts over the past week after fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists escalated. Looming over the negotiations is the prospect of deeper sanctions on Russia, an economic collapse in Ukraine and the risk that the conflict descends into a proxy war.
“Aren’t we already close to the point of no return?” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday. “I’m convinced it would be irresponsible to fail to grasp what may be the final chances to solve the conflict.”
The confrontation in Ukraine was “not caused by the Russian Federation” and an “immediate” cease-fire is needed, Putin said in an interview with Egyptian daily Al-Ahram published ahead of his visit to Cairo Monday. The crisis “emerged in response to the attempts of the U.S. and its Western allies who considered themselves ‘winners’ of the Cold War to impose their will everywhere,” he said.
“We have seen how NATO’s infrastructure was moving closer and closer toward Russian borders and how Russian interests were being ignored,” Putin told the paper.
Merkel is due to discuss the crisis with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington Monday amid growing domestic pressure on the White House to authorize delivery of lethal weapons to Ukraine, a move the German leader opposes. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he’s confident Obama will make his decision “soon” after the meeting.
Ukraine, the U.S., the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization say Russia is supporting the separatists with hardware, cash and troops, accusations the Kremlin denies. Russia says Ukraine is waging war on its own citizens and discriminates against Russian speakers, a majority in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Almost 5,400 people have died in the fighting since April, according to the United Nations. Nine government troops were killed and 26 wounded during 100 attacks by rebel forces in the past 24 hours, Ukrainian military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov told reporters in Kiev on Monday.
The Ukrainian economy meanwhile is being brought to its knees, making the prospect of reviving the country even tougher should a peace agreement ever emerge. The country devalued its currency by 31 percent on Feb. 5 as it tries to win more support from the International Monetary Fund.
The plan for a truce being discussed by German, French and Russian officials foresees a demilitarized zone of 50 to 70 kilometers and greater autonomy for eastern Ukraine, Hollande told France 2 television on Saturday.
Russia and Ukraine, though, remain at loggerheads over Putin’s demands that Kiev introduce a federal constitution and cede broad powers to the rebel-held east, allowing Moscow to maintain its influence. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in Munich that you “cannot play with the constitution” and that he knew in advance what the outcome of a nationwide referendum on granting autonomy for the east would be.
If Ukraine refuses the Russian wishes, the only way out is to reach an agreement on a cease-fire and buffer zone and put aside the issue of status for the Donbas region, said Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s Federation Council upper house.
“A frozen conflict would be better than a continuation of hostilities,” Kosachyov said in an interview Sunday in Munich. “I don’t know whether Berlin, Paris and Kiev are ready to agree to it but it makes sense. If we can demarcate the front line, it would be a big step forward.”
A September cease-fire was repeatedly violated and collapsed completely last month. Separatists gained 500 square kilometers since then and Ukraine insists any demarcation line should be according to the original agreement.