Tuesday 21 November 2017

Merkel and Hollande on mission to avert 'total war’

Pair to meet Russian leader in dramatic peace push

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (C) shakes hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande during their meeting in Kiev. Reuters
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (C) shakes hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande during their meeting in Kiev. Reuters
Local residents wait to board a bus to flee the conflict in Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine. Five more Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in fighting with Russian-backed separatists in the past 24 hours, a military spokesman said on Thursday. Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters
A Ukrainian serviceman holds his position in an APC near Artemivsk, eastern Ukraine, as fighting between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine surged in January, raising the death toll to over 5,300 people killed since April
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
A woman and a child look through a bus window before its departure as people flee due to a military conflict in Debaltseve. The EU's foreign policy chief threw her support on Wednesday behind a call for a temporary truce in the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve to allow for the evacuation of civilians

Mary Dejevsky

Diplomatic efforts are under way to end renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine.

French president Francois Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in the capital Kiev last night to present a new peace initiative.

American secretary of state John Kerry, who is also in Kiev, said the US wanted a diplomatic solution, but would not close its eyes to Russian aggression.

Ms Merkel and Mr Hollande will fly to Moscow later today in an attempt to press Vladimir Putin for a ceasefire in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Kiev has appealed to Washington to arm government troops in their fight against pro-Russian rebels.

Alarm is growing over the rapidly escalating crisis as fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels has killed more than 5,000 people since last April.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of arming rebels in eastern Ukraine and sending regular troops across the border.

Russia denies direct involvement but says some Russian volunteers are fighting alongside the rebels.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Mr Kerry, last night Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said: "We need to get peace. But we will never consider anything that undermines territorial integrity... of Ukraine."

Mr Kerry accused Russia of violating Ukraine's sovereignty, saying that Russia had been acting with "impunity", crossing the Ukrainian border "at will with weapons [and] personnel".

"We are choosing a peaceful solution through diplomacy - but you cannot have a one-sided peace," Mr Kerry said.

He added that Mr Obama was still "reviewing all options", including the possibility of providing "defensive weapons" to Ukraine, due to the dangerous escalation in violence.

Mr Kerry stressed that, while the US's goal was to achieve a diplomatic solution, Mr Obama will soon decide on whether to send defensive military aid to Ukraine.

"The president is reviewing all of his options with respect to where we are, and the reason for that is very simple: the violence has gotten worse," Mr Kerry said.

"We are not interested in a proxy war. Our objective is to change Russia's behaviour, and we will consider all options."

The contents of the Hollande-Merkel plan are being kept secret. A French official said that while new sanctions aren't currently on the agenda, they can't be ruled out. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he's not authorised to talk to the press.

Yesterday the former head of Nato warned that Mr Putin has dangerous ambitions beyond Ukraine and aims to test Western resolve in the Baltic states. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former secretary-general of the Atlantic alliance, said the Kremlin's true goal is to shatter Nato solidarity and reassert Russian dominance over Eastern Europe.

"This is not about Ukraine. Putin wants to restore Russia to its former position as a great power," he said.

"There is a high probability that he will intervene in the Baltics to test Nato's Article 5," he said, referring to the solidarity clause that underpins collective security.

"Putin knows that if he crosses the red line and attacks a Nato ally, he will be defeated. Let us be quite clear about that. But he is a specialist in hybrid warfare," he said.

The fear is that the Kremlin will generate a murky conflict in Estonia or Latvia where there are large Russian minorities, using arms-length action or "little green men" without insignia to disguise any intervention. This may tempt weaker Nato members to play down the incident, either to protect commercial ties with Russia or because of pro-Kremlin sympathies, as in Hungary or Greece.

Yesterday's dramatic announcement that the German chancellor and the French president were on their way to Kiev with a new diplomatic initiative which they intend to take on to Moscow today was at once positive and negative.

It was positive, because it was the first evidence for some time of a serious European effort to address the intensified fighting in eastern Ukraine.

It was negative, because it illustrated how bad the situation must have become to prompt a mission that bears all the hallmarks of desperation.

Once the Merkel-Hollande card has been played, it has been played. It is hard to know where to go from there, should this gambit fail.

There may be several reasons why this move is being risked now.

The most obvious is the renewed spread of fighting to the port of Mariupol, the threat of shelling and street-fighting engulfing all of Donetsk, and the alarming deterioration in conditions there as winter hardens its grip.

A second would be the stated intention of both Kiev and the rebels to increase their fighting capacity, with appeals for volunteers and extended conscription. But the third, and the one that renders diplomacy so urgent, is the ever more frequent talk in some Western capitals about supplying Kiev with weapons, of which there is no shortage on either side. (© Independent News Service)

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