Europe Revives Diplomacy to Save Faltering Ukraine Peace

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko urged the EU to extend sanctions, saying Wednesday that Russia and the Kremlin-backed separatists are breaching the truce. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

European powers struggling to hold together a stalled Ukrainian peace accord will resume talks with Russia and Ukraine in Germany next week as efforts shift from the battlefield to solving political disputes.

European Union leaders say easing economic sanctions on Russia requires full compliance with the agreement negotiated in Belarus in February. That hasn’t happened yet, according to Russia, Ukraine and two European diplomats.

Germany and France, which helped negotiate the deal, “should use their influence” to stop Ukraine from “sabotaging the implementation” of the accord, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on Thursday.

With Russia and Ukraine blaming each other, Lavrov and his counterparts from Ukraine, Germany and France plan to meet in Berlin on Monday as diplomacy to defuse the year-old conflict falters. Disputes include how to decentralize power in Ukraine and getting the government and Russian-backed separatists to hold talks, said the diplomats, who asked not to be identified because the talks are private.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko urged the EU to extend sanctions, saying Wednesday that Russia and the Kremlin-backed separatists are breaching the truce.

Ukrainian leaders and the rebels have traded barbs since the accord, which aims to halt fighting that the United Nations says has killed more than 6,000 people. The U.S. and the EU say Russia is fomenting the violence by sending troops and equipment to the rebels across the border, which the Kremlin denies.

Power Transfer

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Poroshenko negotiated the peace plan at all-night talks in the Belarusian capital of Minsk on Feb. 12. While the truce in eastern Ukraine has largely held and there’s been progress on pulling back heavy weapons, negotiators now face the political heavy lifting.

“It’s certainly become calmer in terms of military confrontations, but the cease-fire still hasn’t been completely implemented,” Merkel said on April 1.

Pledges by Poroshenko to shift power from Kiev to regional governments and set up local elections are unresolved, the diplomats said.

Poroshenko last month signed legislation offering special status to Ukraine’s easternmost regions, including elections and self-governance for mainly Russian-speaking areas. He’s rejecting Russian demands of autonomy for the rebel-held areas.

Russia accuses Ukraine of violating the Minsk accord because lawmakers in Kiev also called for peacekeepers and passed a decree declaring some separatist areas occupied. Ukraine says those aren’t violations.

Sanctions Extension

Another stumbling block is the failure to convene working groups to help carry out the accord with Ukrainian officials, rebels, Russia and observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the diplomats said. Russia is waiting for Ukraine to name its delegates, which the three other sides have already done, Lavrov said Thursday.

“There has been some progress on the ground, despite violations of the cease-fire,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Roman Nadal said by e-mail.

While EU sanctions targeting Russia’s energy and financial industries expire at the end of July, Russia and Ukraine have until the end of the year to fulfill the peace terms. EU leaders pledged to prolong the measures in March, though they stopped short of a formal extension, which requires approval by all 28 member countries.

Russia expects divisions within the EU may sway the decision whether to extend the measures, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, said Friday, according to RIA Novosti.

That’s unlikely, according to Judy Dempsey, a senior associate at Brussels-based research group Carnegie Europe.

“Despite all the divisions inside the EU, unity has prevailed,” Dempsey said by phone. “It has held together because Germany holds the cards. This is the only card Merkel has to put pressure on Putin to implement Minsk and she is going to fight very hard for this.”

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