The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine will meet in Paris on Friday to preserve and further the existing fragile peace in Ukraine, as the conflict was overshadowed by President Vladimir Putin’s dramatic intervention in Syria’s war.
Fighting has all but stopped in eastern Ukraine and with peace closer than ever leaders are seeking a lasting political solution to the 17-month conflict that has left more than 8,000 dead.
The main points of contention are the holding of local elections in separatist eastern Ukraine, ensuring access for international observers to pro-Russian rebel zones, and the removal of heavy weapons from the frontline.
“I am counting on the fact that the Minsk accords will be carried out, which unfortunately today is not the case,” Putin said in Moscow Thursday, speaking about the peace deal struck in February.
“We are far from a resolution, but there are elements that boost our confidence that the crisis can be overcome and the most important point is that there is currently no shooting.”
However observers fear Moscow’s engagement in Syria will draw attention from the peace process at this crucial time.
“It’s obvious” that developments in Syria will “influence the climate” of the long-planned Ukraine talks, a member of Hollande’s entourage told AFP.
Ukraine officials have suggested that with his action in Syria, Putin is hoping to leverage a better deal on Ukraine -- particularly an easing of painful economic sanctions that were imposed after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula last year.
“This is an absolutely absurd interpretation of what is happening,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Thursday.
In Paris, Putin will start the day with bilateral talks with French leader Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Syria.
However officials insist the main order of the day is ironing out kinks in the peace process in Ukraine, at an afternoon summit between the four leaders.
Election ‘bone of contention’
After repeated violations of previous truces, the latest ceasefire, called last month, has been largely observed by pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces, raising hopes that the conflict is drawing to a close.
On Wednesday, Ukraine and the rebels agreed to withdraw smaller weapons from the buffer zone between their forces.
However the warring sides have yet to find a lasting political solution to the crisis that plunged relations between Moscow and the West to their worst levels since the Cold War.
Despite Russian denials, Ukraine and the West accuse Moscow of covertly supporting the rebels with troops and weapons after an uprising installed a pro-EU government in Kiev last year.
Under the Minsk II agreement, eastern Ukraine is supposed to hold local elections by the end of the year and hand back control of the Russian border to the government in Kiev.
The pro-Russia rebels, however, want to hold local elections under their own terms, which include barring all pro-Ukrainian candidates and holding the polls on days that do not correspond to local elections planned in the rest of Ukraine on October 25.
“The question of the elections is the main bone of contention,” a Russian diplomatic source said earlier this month.
Ukraine wants the “fake” rebel elections to be cancelled immediately for the peace process to continue, said Kiev presidency official Kostiantyn Yeliseyev.
He said Russia had requested a meeting between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Putin for Friday, which had not yet been decided.
Putin’s long game?
The European Union is due to evaluate progress on the Minsk accords at the end of the year before deciding whether to maintain sanctions on Russia.
But Russia’s direct intervention in the Syrian conflict has added a new and uncertain dimension to the negotiations.
“We can’t keep long-running sanctions (against Russia) on the one hand, and ask to work together on the other,” on Syria, German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said this week.
However Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office said the Syrian and Ukrainian cases could not be linked.
The sanctions were discussed in a three-way call Thursday between Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko, who insisted the rebel-planned elections would be a “red line”, an official told AFP on condition of anonymity.