MOSCOW: French President Francois Hollande on Saturday became the first European leader to travel to Russia in an attempt to defuse the standoff with Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, as Kiev announced a fresh round of peace talks next week.
Hollande’s meeting with Putin in the diplomatic terminal of an airport outside the capital came as the conflict in eastern Ukraine has plunged relations between the West and Moscow to a post-Cold War low.
The French leader said he hoped to stop a new East-West division from arising and that he expected to see “some results” from the talks with Putin, whom Europe and the United States have accused of arming and bankrolling the rebellion in east Ukraine.
“There are times when we need to seize opportunities. This is such a time… I think we must prevent other walls from separating us,” said Hollande, who also spoke to Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko earlier in the day.
“We must find solutions together,” he told the Russian leader, who this week gave a militant speech accusing the West of undermining Russia.
Putin said there are “difficult problems” to tackle but that the visit would “without a doubt contribute to the resolution of many problems.”
In a crucial admission, Putin said for the first time that the pro-Russian rebels have violated a shaky ceasefire with Kiev.
“We see that both from the side of Kiev leadership and from the side of Donetsk and Lugansk, from both sides, not everything is respected,” he told journalists after the meeting lasting nearly two hours.
Hollande’s last-minute visit, which a source in his delegation said was also agreed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, came as Kiev announced a new round of talks with the rebels in Minsk next week to try and rescue a tattered September ceasefire.
The talks are to be held on Tuesday — also the date set by both sides for a fresh truce to come into force.
Ukraine and the rebels, whose fighting in the east has already claimed more than 4,300 lives, have agreed to suspend military operations on December 9, calling it a “Day of Silence”.
“In the subsequent 30 days, (the sides) must pull back (heavy weapons) from the demilitarisation zone outlined in the Minsk Protocol,” Poroshenko said.
The Ukrainian leader also said that the parties meeting in the Belarussian capital would aim to “confirm the timetable for implementing the (original) Minsk agreements.”
The previous agreements committed both sides to stopping fire and pulling back artillery, but succeeded only in curbing the worst violence without ending it completely.
Hollande said his meeting with Putin “came at the right time, in good circumstances, and will undoubtedly lead to some results in the coming days”.
“If on December 9, the truce is confirmed, we can then look at going further, but if there are still deaths in the next two or three weeks, we will take note of that,” he said.
Hollande said all parties must “use all available instruments to end the crisis” and that the new ceasefire “has to work” and be “completely respected.”
The pro-Kiev governor of the eastern Lugansk region Gennadiy Moskal on Saturday said two civilians had been killed in a village 15 kilometres (nine miles) northwest of Lugansk, while a security spokesman alleged that a convoy of more than 100 trucks and armoured vehicles had moved across the border from Russia on Friday.
Poroshenko said that 1,252 soldiers and volunteers fighting among Kiev’s forces have died over eight months of the conflict, and almost 3,000 have been wounded.
Putin this week signalled he has no intention of softening his stance on Ukraine, which the West says includes sending regular troops across the border to help the separatist cause.
Russia has denied the allegations.
Instead, Putin suggested the West was imposing sanctions because Russia has become “too strong, independent” in their view.
The economic embargoes have pummelled the country’s economy at a time of plunging oil prices, sending the ruble sinking.
Hanging over Hollande’s Ukraine diplomacy are two mammoth warships worth $1.5 billion (1.2 billion euros) that France agreed to deliver to the Russian navy prior to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March.
Moscow is fuming over Hollande’s decision to delay delivery of the first of the carriers — which had been scheduled for this fall — in view of Western concerns over Moscow’s involvement in the conflict.
Paris faces hefty fines if it breaches the contract with Russia, but is under pressure from its allies around the world not to hand over the technology.
Putin claimed after the meeting that the Mistrals were not discussed. Reiterating Moscow’s position that France must honour the contract or return the money, he said Russia will be “understanding” whatever the outcome.
Hollande, facing the prospect of having two hugely expensive ships on his hands that he cannot sell to another client, has insisted the contract has not yet been broken.
Russian officials have also steered clear of ultimatums, with the 400-strong Russian crew of the mammoth assault ships for the time being still in France’s Saint-Nazaire, the city where the shipyard is located and where they are currently training.