The Ukraine crisis is set to return to Europe’s political stage on Monday when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko meets German and French leaders in Berlin to consider steps to end the grinding conflict, now in its 16th month.
A focus of the talks between Poroshenko, Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande will be the fragile ceasefire deal hammered out in Minsk in February amid fears of its collapse following an upsurge in fighting between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is not attending the Berlin meeting, which coincides with Ukraine’s national day of independence when it broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Germany sees the Berlin talks as an attempt to give the Minsk agreement new momentum six months after it was signed at a meeting also attended by Putin.
The process envisaged under the agreement has been “disrupted,” Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said Monday, noting that the ceasefire was regularly broken and that other parts of the accord had not been implemented.
However, Seibert went on to reject Russian criticism of the talks that they were being held without Putin.
“It’s not a substitute for a four-member format,” said Seibert, adding that “close communications with Moscow are essential.”
Before leaving for Berlin, Poroshenko told a crowd of thousands taking part in independence day festivities in Kiev that there are 50,000 Russian troops on the border, warning of an imminent threat of a Russian invasion.
He alleged that there are 9,000 members of the Russian armed forces currently in Ukrainian territory and a total of 40,000 troops in the pro-Russian separatist forces, according to a transcript of the speech carried by the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN.
Russia supports the separatist cause but has repeatedly denied supplying the rebels with weapons or active Russian servicemen.
The talks in Berlin come as European Union leaders prepare to review the economic sanctions that the bloc has imposed on Russia, which are linked to the full implementation of the ceasefire deal.
The measures, in place until the end of January, have resulted in Russian retaliation with a series of tit-for-tat measures, the most prominent being a sweeping ban on food imports.
First imposed in March last year following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the sanctions have also inflicted economic pain on the EU.
Germany has traditionally been Russia’s biggest trading partner in the EU, but the relationship between Moscow and Berlin has been severely strained by the sanctions.
The Federation of German Industry (BDI) said Monday it expects exports from Europe’s biggest economy to contract by 30 per cent this year with 2014 after sinking by 31 per cent in the six months to the end of June.
German exports should total about 20 billion euros this year – half the 2012 level – amid a sharp slump in Russia’s economy and the economic restrictions both Moscow and the EU have inmposed on each other, BDI said.
But despite Russia’s economic recession, Putin continues to ride high in domestic opinion polls. Nearly nine out of 10 Russians approve of Putin, according to one of Russia’s most prominent pollsters, the independent Levada Centre.
A Levada Centre poll in June also found that six out of 10 Russians believe that the sanctions were an attempt to humiliate and weaken Russia. Only 5 per cent said the sanctions were actually meant to stop the war in Ukraine.
Poroshenko sees the main purpose of Monday’s meeting as a chance to coordinate tough actions aimed at ending Russian aggression in Ukraine, which in addition to the military conflict in the east is in the grip of a major economic crisis.
French diplomatic circles have said that the agenda of the talks will also include a focus on reforms to fight corruption in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian president also wants to use the Berlin meeting to press Kiev’s case for Ukrainians to be granted visa-free travel in the EU, as well as the implementation of the Ukraine-EU association agreement.
Source : GNA/newsghana.com.gh