The leaders of Germany and France abruptly announced a summit with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on Friday in response to overtures from the Kremlin, raising hopes of a breakthrough in the year-old Ukraine conflict.
The sudden and unusual decision by the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the president, François Hollande, to travel to Moscow, with the French leader talking of decisions of war and peace, increased the stakes in the crisis while also raising suspicions that the Kremlin was seeking to split Europe and the US. Putin was said to have made “initiatives” to the European leaders in recent days.
Merkel and Hollande met the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, in Kiev on Thursday evening but left without making any comment. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, said on Twitter that the leaders had discussed “steps so that the Minsk agreement can start working”. A ceasefire signed in Minsk in September froze the frontlines at their positions at the time, but never held.
Friday’s visit will be Merkel’s first trip to Russia since the outbreak of violence in eastern Ukraine, which has now cost more than 5,000 lives. The increase in diplomatic efforts came as the US secretary of state, John Kerry, also met Poroshenko and other top officials in Kiev.
At a joint news conference with Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Kerry sounded lukewarm about Merkel and Hollande’s visit. He said Putin had sent “a couple of ideas” to France and Germany, and the pair had come up with a counter-proposal, but he did not give details. Kerry also said the US wanted a diplomatic solution but was reviewing all options including “the possibility of providing defensive systems to Ukraine”.
EU diplomats and officials said that growing US talk of arming Ukraine was pushing the Russians and Europeans towards a diplomatic deal, with both sides keen to avoid weapons deliveries but also to keep the US on the sidelines of the diplomacy.
Yatsenyuk, uneasy at the idea of a deal being cut in Moscow without Ukraine at the table, said Putin wanted “to split the unity between the EU and the US”. He said negotiations should take place between all parties, including Ukraine and the US. Kerry will not travel to Moscow with Merkel and Hollande.
“The best way to save this conflict is to retain unity of the free world. The EU, the US and Ukraine. We stay together, we act in concert,” said Yatsenyuk.
As fierce fighting continues, diplomatic negotiations are entering a key period, with Merkel due to travel to Washington early next week, after her Kiev and Moscow trips, to meet Barack Obama.
A number of US officials have signalled recently that Washington may be open to providing Ukraine with direct military aid. Kerry said the US president would make a decision on providing defensive weapons to Ukraine soon. Merkel has ruled out sending weapons, and her trip to Moscow could be a last-ditch attempt to avoid Washington arming Ukraine and the prospect of a proxy war between the US and Russia in Ukraine.