Putin Backs Ukraine Peace Pact as End-of-Year Deadline Looms

  • Russian, Ukrainian, German, French Ministers Meet in Berlin
  • Officials Seek Leverage After Cease-Fire Holds for Two Weeks

Warring parties in eastern Ukraine should adhere to a negotiated end-of-year deadline for a fragile seven-month-old peace accord, Russian President Vladimir Putin said as officials met in Berlin to push the settlement forward.

Foreign ministers from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France who met Saturday said they made some progress in breathing life into a peace process signed in the Belarus capital Minsk in February, after a truce in eastern Ukraine has held for two weeks. With very few of the other elements of Minsk implemented ahead of the deadline at the end of 2015, Russia this week raised the prospect of extending the pact.

“In principle, we can think of postponing deadlines, but it’s better to aim for implementing what we have reached in Minsk in time,” Putin told reporters Saturday during his visit to the ancient Greek ruin of Khersones Tavricheskiy in Crimea, along with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. “In my view, there is no other alternative to the Minsk agreements for peace and reconciliation,” Putin said.

The U.S. and the European Union accuse Russia of stoking the 17-month-old military conflict, in which almost 8,000 people have been killed, by sending personnel and weapons over the border into the two Ukrainian regions. Russia denies involvement as the western nations imposed sanctions.

Donbas Region

The four foreign ministers cited progress on withdrawing heavy weapons from the frontlines in Ukraine’s Donbas region, exchanging prisoners and gaining access for peace observers. Negotiators are also aiming to move forward on local elections in Ukraine and establishing autonomy for embattled regions when they meet next week. A leaders’ summit with Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande will take place Oct. 2 in Paris.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who hosted his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Ukraine’s Pavlo Klimkin and France’s Laurent Fabius at a lakeside villa, said the meeting was “less confrontational” than previous gatherings.

Some Relief

“It’s still far from easy, but today I can report some relief,” Steinmeier told reporters in Berlin, saying that the cease-fire in Donbas had held since Sept. 1.

Lavrov expressed optimism that the wide gaps that remain can be closed.

"Our general impression -- meaning Russia, France and Germany -- is that these discrepancies can be overcome,” Lavrov told the Russian press after the meeting.

Russian Sanctions

Successful implementation of the pact is crucial for Russia to avert extension of sanctions, even as prospects dim for completing the Minsk requirements. Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, who represents the administration in Kiev at peace talks, has expressed skepticism about meeting the deadline.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, speaking in Kiev, said sanctions against Russia will stay in place until the Minsk accord is fully implemented.

“If and when Minsk is fully implemented, including return of Ukraine’s sovereignty to its border, we can begin to roll back some sanctions, but if Minsk is further violated there will be more,” Nuland said.

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