Friday 24 November 2017

European leaders fly to Russia for crisis talks amid growing fears of 'total war'

Members of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic drive armoured vehicles, with a red flag showing St George slaying the Dragon, near Donetsk
Members of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic drive armoured vehicles, with a red flag showing St George slaying the Dragon, near Donetsk

Press Association

French president Francois Hollande has said he is taking a new peace initiative to Ukraine alongside German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Speaking at a news conference in Paris and describing the Ukrainian conflict as a war, Mr Hollande said the pair will go to Kiev before arriving in Moscow on Friday with a proposal "based on the territorial integrity of Ukraine"

US secretary of state John Kerry is also in Ukraine to show support for the government amid a flurry of international diplomacy.

In a sign of the importance of the initiative and the urgency of the situation, this will be Ms Merkel's first trip to Moscow since the Ukrainian conflict broke out a year ago.

Ukrainian army soldiers being held prisoner sit in a hall inside a Russian-backed separatist military base outside Donetsk. (AP)
Ukrainian army soldiers being held prisoner sit in a hall inside a Russian-backed separatist military base outside Donetsk. (AP)

Mr Hollande said: "It will not be said that France and Germany together have not tried everything, undertaken everything, to preserve the peace."

Ms Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in a statement: "Given the escalation of violence in the past days, the chancellor and president Hollande are intensifying their months-long efforts for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine."

The surprise move came as the US edged toward offering Ukraine military aid.

Read more: Russia's nuclear strategy raises concerns in NATO

Resurgent fighting in eastern Ukraine is threatening European security. France and Germany hope to could come up with a peace deal that both Ukraine and Russia can agree to.

In Brussels, Nato is preparing to boost its forces in response to Ukrainian unrest.

A woman stands outside clinic 27, damaged after shelling, in Donetsk, Ukraine (AP)
A woman stands outside clinic 27, damaged after shelling, in Donetsk, Ukraine (AP)

Fighting between Russia-backed separatists and government forces resumed in January after a month of relative calm, with more than 220 civilians killed in the past three weeks alone, according to the United Nations.

The UN has sharply criticised both sides for indiscriminate shelling and has called for a temporary truce.

At least three people were killed in overnight shelling in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, local officials said, amid fierce fighting in several areas of eastern Ukraine.

In Moscow, Russian president Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that Mr Putin, Ms Merkel and Mr Hollande will discuss "what the three nations can do to help put a quick end to a civil war in southeastern Ukraine, which has exacerbated in recent days with mounting casualties".

Mr Kerry came to Ukraine to show support for its embattled government as president Barack Obama's administration weighs up the possibility of sending arms to Kiev to help it fight Russian-backed separatists.

He brought €14.3m (£10.7m) in new US humanitarian aid, but the Ukrainian government is anxious to use the visit to reiterate its plea for lethal aid.

Read more: UN condemns Ukraine civilian deaths as death toll rises to 5,350

Mr Obama has opposed the idea of sending weapons to Ukraine but sources in his administration say this position could change in the light of recent fighting.

Officials with Mr Kerry said he would discuss those needs with Ukrainian officials as well as new initiatives to resurrect a moribund ceasefire and resume a political dialogue to end the conflict.

Germany remains fiercely opposed to sending arms to Ukraine, a position that German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier reiterated.

Speaking after meeting with his Latvian counterpart, Edgars Rinkevics, in Riga, Mr Steinmeier said it would not improve the situation if "we now bring more weapons to the region".

"We believe that we must make another attempt to finally bring the violence to an end," he is quoted as saying.

In Brussels, Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the defence ministers meeting today are expected to approve boosting the size of the alliance's Response Force from 13,000 to 30,000, in reaction to Russian actions in Ukraine.

Russia has vehemently denied allegations of helping the rebels in Ukraine. The Kremlin acknowledged that Russian volunteers are fighting in eastern Ukraine but insists that Moscow has not sent its troops or weapons to help the rebels.

Russia has expressed concerned about Nato's build-up in eastern Europe while defending a heavy military presence at its border with Ukraine.

Mr Hollande appeared to be offering a nod to Mr Putin on one of his key demands: that Ukraine stays out of Nato.

Mr Hollande said: "France is not favourable to Ukraine's entry into Nato, let us be clear.

"We have to speak the truth to all the countries that are around us. For the Russians who are worried ... We have to settle this problem among Europeans. We are on the same continent."

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