Sunday

26th Jan 2020

Guns blaze in Ukraine as leaders meet in Paris

  • Ukrainian soldiers on contact line in the east of the country (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)

International monitors recorded hundreds of explosions and bursts of small arms fire on the contact line in east Ukraine as France prepared to host the first peace summit on the war in three years.

The number of ceasefire violations was almost double that of last week and higher than the daily average last year, a special mission from the Organisation for Security and Co‑operation in Europe (OSCE) said in its last report on Friday (7 December).

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  • Paris talks risk making Russian president Vladimir Putin look like a peacemaker (Photo: kremlin.ru)

The OSCE monitors also saw surface-to-air missile systems, anti-aircraft guns, and armoured personnel carriers in the Russia-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions, even though Russia denies having troops there and says the anti-Ukraine fighters are just unhappy locals.

That was the backdrop for a meeting between the French and German leaders, speaking for the EU, and the Ukrainian and Russian presidents taking place in Paris on Monday (9 December).

Some 5,000 people also demonstrated in Kiev on Sunday against any deal that would cede ground to Russia.

"We are here so that the voice from Kiev can be heard in Paris. Friends, we cannot make any concessions to [Russian president Vladimir] Putin until the last sliver of Ukrainian land is free," Ukraine's former president Petro Poroshenko told the rally, according to the Reuters news agency.

"We are not satisfied with ... peace at the cost of capitulation," Inna Sovsun, an MP from the opposition Golos party, said.

"I don't believe in good faith in respect to Russia and that's why I have no intention to be part of it [the Paris event]," Olena Zerkal, Ukraine's former deputy foreign minister, who resigned last week, also told the BBC.

For his part, French president Emmanuel Macron called the summit after having said the EU needed a new "strategic dialogue" with Russia.

He called Putin a "child of St Petersburg", a city in western Russia, in a comment which depicted the Russian leader as a pro-European.

And he said Nato was "brain dead", in a swipe at US president Donald Trump, suggesting that Europe needed to take matters into its own hands.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has in the past defended EU sanctions on Russia and recently expelled two Russian diplomats over an assassination in Berlin.

But she has also forged ahead with building a new Russia-Germany gas pipeline.

And her foreign minister, Heiko Maas, praised the Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, for bringing "new momentum" to the peace process.

He also called the five-year old war, which has claimed 13,000 lives and displaced more than 1m people, "a festering wound in Europe" in an interview with German press at the weekend.

Mini-successes?

Putin himself has said little, but has made preparations for mini-successes at the Paris meeting, such as exchanging more prisoners, giving back some military boats to Ukraine, or striking a new deal on EU gas transit.

Zelensky, a 41-year old former comedian, appeared on TV walking on a treadmill in a gym, and said: "Without this dialogue, it's like running on a treadmill ... you're losing calories, but you're stuck in the same place".

"I'm not selling our country, not ever, to anybody for anything," he also said.

His spokeswoman, Iulia Mendel, criticised the Kiev protesters, saying "scepticism and fear" were "leading people to demonstrate against a fictitious capitulation".

And Andriy Yermak, a Zelensky aide, told an event at the Chatham House think-tank in London last week, that Ukraine would not agree to federalisation in which the Russia-occupied regions gained a special status and a veto on Ukraine's foreign policy.

"If we don't see readiness from Russia to implement the Minsk agreement or to move towards a peaceful solution with a clear-cut timeframe, well, in this case, we'll be building a wall [around the occupied territories], and life will continue," he said.

The 'Minsk accord' is a ceasefire pact drawn up in 2016 in the Belarusian capital which calls for autonomy for the Russia-occupied regions and amnesty for anti-Ukrainian fighters in return for Russia's withdrawal from Ukraine.

Its companion piece, the 'Steinmeier formula', named after German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier who proposed it, also says Ukraine ought to move first on autonomy before Russia delivers its part of the deal.

Macron gambit

But more than half of Ukrainians (53 percent) do not want the autonomy and almost two-thirds (62.7 percent) are against the amnesty, according to a recent poll by the International Institute of the Sociology in Kiev, putting Zelensky in a difficult position.

And some experts have warned that Macron's summit risks handing Putin a diplomatic victory no matter what happens in Paris on Monday.

If Zelensky agrees to the Steinmeier formula, he risks the capitulation that people fear, the experts said.

And if he does not, he risks making Putin, who invaded Ukraine in the first place, look like the good guy in European eyes.

"The risk is real that in order for the Paris summit to become a 'success' from a Franco-German perspective, Mr Zelensky will come under great pressure to be 'reasonable' and to agree to compromises that will lead to 'lasting peace'," Willem Aldershoff, a former senior EU official, wrote in the Financial Times, a British newspaper, at the weekend.

"The most that can be achieved - not in Paris, but eventually - is a more durable ceasefire, a full exchange of prisoners, and some easing of humanitarian/economic contacts across the frontline in Donbass [eastern Ukraine]," Dmitry Trenin, from the Carnegie Europe think-tank, said in his analysis.

"What Putin can get out of Paris is Europeans' conclusion that he is willing to deal with Zelensky on practical issues," Trenin added.

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