GENEVA: Russia and Ukraine reached a deal Monday to supply gas to Europe until the end of March after President Vladimir Putin and Western leaders admitted there was still progress to be made in implementing a ceasefire.
The deal struck after tense talks in Brussels secures gas supplies to the European Union until the end of winter after they had been put at risk by a row over supplies to rebel-held eastern Ukraine.
Earlier, Putin spoke by telephone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German leader Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande and they agreed that “progress has been made, but the situation must be improved further”, according to a French presidency statement.
The leaders agreed to ask the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to play a bigger role in ensuring the two-week-old ceasefire is implemented, the statement said.
The UN said Monday more than 6,000 people have died in the Ukraine conflict in less than a year.
Before the four leaders spoke, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov both said they saw positive signs in Ukraine after talks in Geneva.
Kerry and Lavrov, speaking separately, both cautiously said the deal struck in Minsk on February 15 was on the right track, despite repeated breaches that have left dozens dead.
Lavrov welcomed “tangible progress” in the implementation of the peace deal, saying “the ceasefire is being consolidated, heavy weapons are withdrawn.”
Kerry, meanwhile, cautioned that there had been “a kind of cherry-picking, a piecemeal selectivity to the application of the Minsk agreements.”
He said however he was “very hopeful” that his talks with Lavrov would help bring about the change needed to end fighting.
“Our hope is that within the next hours, and certainly not more than days, this (ceasefire) will be fully implemented,” he said.
While fighting has broadly halted along much of Ukraine’s frontline, press photographer Sergiy Nikolayev was killed by a mortar shell over the weekend and eight soldiers were injured by rebel fire.
Ukraine’s army said Monday that one soldier had been killed, but the ceasefire was still broadly holding.
Both sides have also begun to pull back some heavy weaponry from the frontline, but OSCE monitors have said it is too early to confirm a full pullback.
“I underscored this morning that if there continues to be this broad swathe of non-compliance… then there would be inevitable consequences that would place further strain on Russia’s economy,” Kerry said, referring to further sanctions that the US and EU are working on.
In Brussels, five hours of talks involving the Russian and Ukrainian energy ministers produced a long-awaited deal on supplying gas to Ukraine until the end of March. The EU receives about a third of its gas from Russia with half that amount transiting via Ukraine pipelines.
“I am satisfied that we managed to safeguard the full application of the Winter Package for the supply needs in Ukraine,” said Maros Sefcovic, European Commission Vice-President for Energy Union, referring to a contract expiring on March 31 that Russia had threatened to scrap.
He said Russia and Ukraine had also agreed to hold negotiations on future deliveries.
“I am reassured that the supply of gas to the EU markets remains secure,” Sefcovic said.
Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas giant, threatened last week to halt deliveries to Ukraine and divert stocks instead to the eastern parts of the country controlled by pro-Kremlin separatists after Kiev cut them off.
Despite the optimism, the United Nations painted a bleak picture of developments in Ukraine in a new report.
“More than 6,000 lives have now been lost in less than a year due to the fighting in eastern Ukraine,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said.
The UN said rights abuses had been committed by both sides in the conflict. It pointed to arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances committed mainly by armed groups but also in some cases by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.
The swelling violence and dire living conditions have forced increasing numbers of people to flee, and by mid-February, at least one million people had been registered as internally displaced inside Ukraine.
“Many have been trapped in conflict zones, forced to shelter in basements, with hardly any drinking water, food, heating, electricity or basic medical supplies,” Zeid said.
Speaking in Geneva at the launch of the report, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic said “the deliberate targeting of civilian areas may constitute a war crime, and if widespread and systematic, a crime against humanity.”