BERLIN: The foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France ended their latest Berlin crisis meeting Wednesday with a joint call to cease hostilities in Ukraine but no breakthrough agreement to stop the bloodshed.
The talks had been held against the unpromising backdrop of fresh clashes between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Moscow rebels in the east of the former Soviet republic, and after Ukraine’s president accused Moscow of fuelling the war with fresh troops and tanks.
The four top diplomats in their statement could agree to “call on all sides involved to cease hostilities and to withdraw heavy weapons” back from a demarcation line agreed in a widely flouted September truce pact signed in Minsk.
“I’m not going to say we saw a breakthrough, but I think we saw tangible progress today,” said the host, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, adding that the coming days would show whether there would be any change on the ground.
Steinmeier said the main achievement was that all sides had agreed that the demarcation line agreed in the Minsk pact would indeed form the basis for the pull-back of heavy arms on either side.
The talks had “tested the patience of all participants”, he said after meeting his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who left the talks first, as well as Ukraine’s Pavlo Klimkin and Laurent Fabius of France.
“Much will depend on whether what we agreed is just printed on paper or whether the situation on the ground really changes,” Steinmeier told journalists after almost four hours of talks.
The ministers said that before a hoped-for Kazakhstan peace summit could be held, there must be tangible progress on implementing the Minsk agreements, including an effective ceasefire and agreed ways to deliver humanitarian aid to the region.
At least six people were killed Wednesday across separatist-controlled regions of Ukraine’s industrial southeast.
Days of heavy fighting centred around Donetsk’s ruined airport have left in tatters the already shaky truce deal agreed in Belarus in September.
US Secretary of State John Kerry accused the rebels of attempting “a blatant land grab”.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, speaking earlier at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said the upsurge in fighting after a nearly month-long lull was prompted by a new surge of Russian forces and weapons.
“We have more than 9,000 troops of the Russian Federation on my territory, including more than 500 tanks and heavy artillery and armed personnel carriers,” the pro-Western leader said.
“Terror is not the problem of Ukraine, and even not the problem of Europe,” Poroshenko told the high-powered audience in English. “This is a global problem.”
Ukraine on Tuesday alleged that Russian regular forces had attacked its troops in Lugansk after crossing over into the separatist region the day before.
Moscow strongly denies supporting the insurgents despite NATO satellite imagery purporting to show its forces’ presence in Ukraine — photographs Russia says were either doctored or misinterpreted by the Western military bloc.
“As for the charges of us supplying troops and weapons — we hear this all the time,” Lavrov said in Moscow. “And each time, I say: if you are so sure about this, show us the proof … But the proof — they either do not want to present it or simply cannot.”
A top US general — in Kiev to help bolster Ukraine’s NATO ties — said evidence was “very clear” of Russia doubling the amount of modern military equipment available to the militias in recent weeks.
“If you don’t believe that that’s being provided by Russia, then you do not want to believe,” said US Army Europe commander Ben Hodges.
Ukraine’s severe financial crisis has been worsened by extra war spending and the eastern region’s industrial collapse.
In Davos, IMF head Christine Lagarde said Poroshenko had asked for a new and broader rescue package, adding that “we will consult with the IMF Executive Board on the authorities’ request”.
Compounding Ukraine’s problems last year was a months-long cut off from Russian gas supplies.
Kiev accused Moscow of using gas as a means of “economic aggression” and refused to pay the higher rates Russia slapped on Ukraine in the wake of last February’s ouster of a Kremlin-backed president.
Poroshenko said Wednesday that Ukraine had in the past year halved the amount of gas it imported from Russia.
He vowed to completely break Ukraine’s energy dependence on Russia with the help of a transition to western European imports and his country’s own shale gas supplies.
“I am absolutely sure that in two years’ time, we will be absolutely energy independent from Russia,” said Poroshenko.