Ukraine Rebel Gains Seen as Sticking Point at Minsk Talks

Ukraine’s resistance to locking in territorial gains made by pro-Russian separatists will be a key point of contention at the summit aimed at halting 10 months of fighting, according to the German government’s coordinator for ties with Russia.

Reaching a cease-fire at the meeting in Minsk, Belarus, later on Wednesday hinges on Russia and Ukraine agreeing on a demarcation line, the official, Gernot Erler, said by phone.

“That will be a really difficult point in the talks, because it’ll be hard for the Ukrainian president to explain domestically that considerable additional territory would come under separatist control,” he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande plan to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk in Europe’s highest-profile bid to enforce a cease-fire agreed in September and keep the conflict from expanding.

Hanging over the meeting, which is set to begin at 6:30 p.m. local time, is the possibility of further economic sanctions on Russia, which Erler said could be set in motion by European Union leaders this week if the talks fail.

Expanded sanctions on individuals could be decided as early as Thursday at an EU summit in Brussels that “could also pave the way for preparing further economic sanctions,” Erler said.

Russia’s incentive to make a deal may be reducing the cost of the conflict, which Putin denies his forces are involved in.

‘Bottomless Pit’

Keeping the population in rebel-held areas supplied “is a bottomless pit for the Russians,” Erler said. “Russia has big economic problems, so it’s in their interest to reach an economic settlement on Ukraine.”

The separatists are claiming an additional area of some 1500 square kilometers (579 square miles), according to Erler. Ukraine’s government would therefore ultimately have to accept a de-facto separation of the separatist areas, he said.

Lower-level negotiators who met in Minsk this week to prepare the summit worked “at high speed” on the demarcation line, Erler said. Border guarantees and the level of autonomy for rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine are also contentious, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

Erler, a member of the Social Democratic Party, Merkel’s junior coalition partner, echoed her stance in rebuffing U.S. advocates of arming the Ukrainian government. President Barack Obama left the door open to weapons shipments during a White House news conference with Merkel on Monday.

Erler said that it was obvious Russia would not retreat militarily. The Minsk meeting will show whether the threat of further sanctions and possible arms shipments to Ukraine are enough to make Russia ready to compromise, he said.

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