Thursday

21st Mar 2019

EU leaders to meet with Russia and Ukraine in Minsk

  • Merkel and Biden at the Munich Security Conference: Delegates laughed at Russian FM Lavrov (Photo: state.gov)

French, German, Ukrainian, and Russian leaders are to hold peace talks in Minsk on Wednesday (11 February), in an event described as a “last chance” to avert full-scale war.

The meeting is to culminate a week of intensive diplomacy.

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  • Merkel is in Washington on Monday, Minsk on Wednesday, and Brussels on Thursday (Photo: bundeskanzlerin.de)

The French and German leaders were in Kiev and Moscow on Thursday and Friday. They held a telephone conference on Sunday. The crisis dominated debate at the weekend’s Munich Security Conference. German leader Angela Merkel is also in Washington on Monday to co-ordinate EU-US activity.

For his part, French leader Francois Hollande told the France 2 broadcaster on Saturday that Merkel and he are proposing a 50 to 70km-wide demilitarised zone on the current line of contact in Ukraine.

He said there should be “strong autonomy” for Russia-occupied territories because: “these people have been fighting a war against each other. It would be hard for them to live together [again]”.

He noted the Minsk event is “one of the last chances” to avoid even further escalation.

Merkel, speaking at the Munich conference also on Saturday, said: “We want to make security in Europe together with Russia, not against Russia”.

“I support discussions between the European Commission and the Eurasian Union [a new Russia-led bloc]. But I add: The prerequisite for such talks and certainly for success is overcoming the crisis in Ukraine”.

US vice-president Joe Biden was less conciliatory.

“Russia needs to understand that as long as it continues its current course, the United States, and, God willing, all of Europe, and the international community will continue to impose costs”, he told the Munch event.

“[Russian] president [Vladimir] Putin has to make a simple, stark choice: Get out of Ukraine or face continued isolation and growing economic costs”.

Putin himself is sounding equally strident.

He told the Egyptian daily Al Ahram on Monday the EU and US are trying “to tear states which had been parts of the former USSR off Russia and to prompt them to make an artificial choice ‘between Russia and Europe’.”

Weapons?

Biden, Hollande, and Merkel said the Ukraine conflict cannot be solved by military means.

"I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to president Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily," the German chancellor told Munich.

Her comment comes amid a US debate on whether to ship modern anti-tank weapons to Ukraine.

US general Philip Breedlove, Nato’s top military commander, said in Munich: “I don’t think we should preclude out of hand the possibility of the military option”.

A handful of senators from the more hawkish Republican party were more outspoken.

John McCain said: "The Ukrainians are being slaughtered and we're sending them blankets and meals”. Lyndsey Graham said EU diplomatic efforts are “not working. You can go to Moscow until you turn blue in the face”.

But US secretary of state John Kerry denied there is an EU-US split.

"I keep hearing people trying to create one. We are united, we are working closely together … Let me assure everybody, there is no division”.

Sanctions?

The Minks peace talks come on the eve of an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday.

The EU is, on Monday, to expand its Russia blacklist, adding Russian deputy defence minister Anatoly Antaonov, among others.

It is also in internal talks on fresh economic sanctions.

But the weekend revealed strong differences inside Europe on how to handle the crisis.

UK foreign minister Philip Hammond told Sky News on Sunday that Putin is “acting like some mid-20th century tyrant ... this [the Minsk summit] is one of the last opportunities Russia will have to avoid further significant damage to its economy”.

But Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann told the Kurier daily on Saturday: "In my opinion sanctions are a vicious circle difficult to get out of ... they achieve little or nothing”.

The Russian news agency, Lenta.ru, reported that Cyprus, another Russia-friendly EU state, is in talks to open new Russian military bases on its territory.

“Looks like a joke, unless clarified…”, the Lithuanian foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, tweeted in response.

Laughter

The Munich event saw Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov claim there are no Russian troops in Ukraine and that Crimea, last year, joined Russia willingly.

His remarks prompted laughter from delegates, including senior EU and US officials, in the audience.

“You can laugh at this, if you find it funny ... I found many things [said here] funny as well, but I controlled myself”, Lavrov noted.

The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, later said: “The speech by my colleague Lavrov yesterday made no contribution to this [a peaceful solution].”

The Swedish former foreign minister, Carl Bildt, tweeted: “I hope he [Lavrov] feels somewhat ashamed of having to market such rubbish”.

The Ukrainian leader, Petro Poroshenko, in his Munich speech held up passports of captured Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

“Here there are the passports and documents of Russian soldiers and officers who came to us and ‘got lost’ on their way. This is the best evidence of the presence of Russian troops”, he said.

“Mounds of lies and propaganda have been heaped into a wall of hatred, erected between two once friendly nations”.

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