Ukraine said yesterday (9 June) it had reached a “mutual understanding” with Moscow on parts of a plan proposed by President Petro Poroshenko for ending violence in the east of the country.
Kyiv gave no details and Russia did not comment directly but two days of talks, following a brief encounter in France last week that broke the ice between Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, have given momentum to moves towards peace.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement released in Berlin that there was “some faint light at the end of the tunnel” in the Ukraine conflict for the first time in months.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a brief statement in Kyiv that Russian and Ukrainian representatives had met three times in the past two days to discuss Poroshenko’s plan to end an insurrection by pro-Russian separatists in the east.
“As a result of the work, the sides reached a mutual understanding on key stages of the implementation of the plan and on a list of priorities which will contribute to a de-escalation of the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine,” it said.
The talks are being mediated by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Vienna-based security and human rights watchdog, but almost no details of Poroshenko’s plan or the talks have been made public.
It was not even clear who took part in Monday’s meetings, although the Ukrainian leader was present at Sunday’s talks and said that the violence must end this week.
“Each day when people die, when Ukraine pays such a high price, is inadmissible for me,” his office quoted him as saying.
Poroshenko, who was sworn in on Saturday, has called for daily meetings of the “contact group” and the Foreign Ministry said the talks would continue.
Ebb in fighting
Scores of people have been killed since April in east Ukraine, including separatists and government forces. Russian speakers there are suspicious of Poroshenko and the new, pro-Western government in Kyiv.
But fighting has ebbed in the past few days, despite renewed shelling of rebels in the city of Slaviansk. Russia and Ukraine signaled last week they hoped to resolve a dispute over the price Kyiv pays for Russian gas and its gas debts.
Failure to secure a deal, though, would fuel more tension because Moscow threatened to turn off the taps on Tuesday if there was no agreement at the latest meeting in Brussels.
As the EU gets about a third of its gas imports from Russia, almost half of it via Ukraine, its member states could also suffer from supply disruptions.
In Finland, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the government in Ukraine and the EU had to work more constructively to end the crisis in Ukraine, but also expressed some hope.
“I believe that the newly-chosen Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s contacts [with Western leaders] can lead to violence being stopped and internal dialogue beginning,” he told a news conference with Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja.
Putin and Poroshenko had 15 minutes of talks during a World War Two anniversary event in France last week, their first meeting since the crisis flared in February after the overthrow of Ukraine’s Moscow-leaning president, Viktor Yanukovich.
Yanukovich fled to Russia, which annexed the Crimea region from Ukraine a month later, deepening Moscow’s worst standoff with the West since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Poroshenko has set looked towards Europe since being elected president on 25 May, and stepped up a military operation to take back buildings seized by the separatists in towns and cities in mainly Russian-speaking east Ukraine.
On Saturday, Poroshenko was inaugurated at a ceremony, which gave the feeling that a line had been drawn under six months of the unprecedented and bloody upheaval which toppled his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovich.
In his inaugural speech, Poroshenko vowed he would never accept the loss of Crimea, which Russia annexed in March following the fall of the Moscow-backed Yanukovich. He declared, “Crimea was, is and will be Ukrainian soil.”
But the reality on the ground is that there are few, if any, factors that could persuade Russia to hand the territory back.
A greater priority, analysts said, must be to end the rebellions which threaten Poroshenko’s vision of a unitary state.
He reached out to the people of the east on Saturday promising to guarantee their Russian-language rights and the prospect of a bigger say in running their own affairs.
He offered rebels an amnesty if they laid down their weapons and a secure corridor back to Russia for Russian fighters.
But – as with almost all the problems facing Poroshenko – ending the rebellions requires the goodwill and cooperation of others, in this case that of Putin.
In what might be a positive signal from Moscow, Russian news agencies reported Putin had ordered the Federal Security Service to strengthen protection of the border with Ukraine and prevent people crossing illegally.
The move was potentially significant because Ukraine and Western governments have been pressing Moscow to stop what they say is a flow of Russian arms and fighters into eastern Ukraine.
First steps for Poroshenko will be to name some key members of his team.
He is expected to name a new foreign minister soon – possibly Valery Chaly who has been in charge of foreign policy issues in his campaign. He has the right also to name a defence minister – another key post given the army’s involvement in quelling the eastern rebellions and the perceived need to stop Russian fighters crossing the border.
Other important allies will be Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, who is at the forefront of the sensitive gas talks with Russia over pricing. The liberal prime minister, himself a former economy minister, has already pledged to work “as a single whole” with the president and parliament.
The crisis in Ukraine erupted after its former President Viktor Yanukovich cancelled plans to sign trade and political pacts with the EU in November 2013 and instead sought closer ties with Russia, triggering protests that turned bloody and drove him from power.
Moscow annexed Crimea in March following a referendum staged after Russian forces established control over the Black Sea peninsula in the biggest East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Pro-Russian militants control buildings in more than ten towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on 6 April. On 11 May pro-Moscow rebels declared a resounding victory in a referendum in Donetsk, which the West called illegal and illegitimate.