Ukraine agreement opens way to Astana summit

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. [The Council of European Union]

Frank-Walter Steinmeier [The Council of European Union]

Diplomatic progress was made during four-way talks on the Ukraine crisis, and an agreement was reached on establishing security zones between pro-Russian fighters and Kyiv’s forces, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

“Finally there was an agreement reached today that the demarcation line, mentioned in the Minsk protocol, will be the line from which the withdrawal of heavy weaponry should start now,” Steinmeier said late on Wednesday (21 January) after talks with his counterparts from France, Russia and Ukraine.

Still, Steinmeier added: “A lot depends on the question if that what we have agreed on will not only remain printed paper, but will also change the situation on the ground.”

In a joint statement released by the German foreign ministry, the ministers noted “with serious concern” that fighting in eastern Ukraine had severely escalated, causing the loss of many human lives including civilians.

“This must stop immediately and the regime of quiet must be restored,” the statement said, adding that the ministers called on all actors on the ground to fully respect it. That included withdrawal of heavy weapons in accordance with the contact line as stipulated in the Minsk peace plan.

The ministers stated that tangible progress on the full implementation of the Minsk protocol had to be achieved before a planned summit could take place. That included an effective ceasefire, an agreement on the delivery of humanitarian aid and continuation of the release of detainees.

The four ministers reiterated support for the Ukraine contact group and called on signatories of the Minsk peace plan to meet in the coming days to implement the ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons.

They also called for formation of working groups to address relevant aspects of the Minsk agreements.

Earlier on Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the goal of the Berlin talks was to try to reschedule a summit of the four countries in the Kazakh capital Astana, which was called off last week due to renewed fighting.

Kyiv and Moscow blame each other for failing to implement a ceasefire agreed in Minsk last September to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where more than 4,700 have died in fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian rebels.

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday, said Russia had 9,000 troops on Ukrainian soil and he called on Moscow to withdraw them.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's new peace proposal for Ukraine is little more than a blueprint for military occupation to secure territory seized by Moscow-backed rebels, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations Samantha Power said on Wednesday.

"The plan would seek to legitimize territorial gains made by separatists in September as well as Russian personnel and equipment on the territory of Ukraine," Power told the U.N. Security Council.

"Let us pull the veil away from Putin's peace plan and call it for what it is - a Russian occupation plan," she said during a special meeting of the 15-member body on Ukraine.

Putin floated the proposal to end a conflict in which more than 4,800 people have died since last April to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko last week. But Moscow said on Sunday Poroshenko rejected the plan.

>> Read: Russia says Poroshenko rejected peace plan

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin blamed Kyiv for the recent upsurge in violence and said Moscow was ensuring "full compliance with the Minsk agreement."

Lithuanian Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite said "Russia's intentions to rewrite the Minsk agreements in a way that would legitimize and accept the territorial gains achieved by the militants speaks to Kremlin's wholehearted support for those criminals."

British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant joined the criticism of Moscow, citing "the usual pattern of Russian denials and misinformation." He also called on Moscow to stop using humanitarian convoys to supply rebels with arms.

The council is deadlocked on Ukraine, a topic it has discuss dozens of times since last spring.

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