The leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine will meet in Berlin on Wednesday to discuss the stalled Minsk peace plan to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but officials quickly dampened expectation of any breakthrough.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the meeting would aim to establish a timetable for elections in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine and to focus on further military disengagement.
But Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, speaking in Oslo, cautioned against setting “very high expectations” for the meeting, even as the Kremlin blasted Ukraine for not respecting its obligations under the Minsk ceasefire deal.
Fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed rebels has killed more than 9,600 since 2014, despite a ceasefire agreed in the Belarussian capital Minsk in February 2015, and shooting incidents and other violence still continue along a demarcation line.
“Am I very optimistic? Yes. I am very optimistic about the future of Ukraine but unfortunately not so much about tomorrow’s meeting, but I would be very happy to be surprised,” Poroshenko said.
The talks will take place just over a year after the four leaders last met in the so-called “Normandy Format,” and against the backdrop of heightened tensions between Russia, Europe and the United States about Moscow’s role in the Syrian conflict.
A German government source said German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande would also discuss the Syrian conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ayrault confirmed this, saying pressure on Russia over Syria must continue.
Merkel had said last week that it only made sense to coordinate a meeting of the four leaders if there was progress on security and political issues in the Ukraine crisis.
One European diplomatic source said expectations were not high, but it was important to keep dialogue open, especially given heightened tensions over Syria.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters it made sense to “compare notes” about implementation of the Minsk accord, but it was not possible to talk about any concrete agreements.
“Indeed, the security situation along the demarcation line leaves a lot to be desired, provocations are ongoing,” Peskov said. “Of course, all this does not promote the process of achieving the implementation of the Minsk agreements.”
Peskov chafed at a statement issued by the Ukrainian government in which it said the Berlin meeting was meant “to put pressure on Russia to fulfil (the) security package of Minsk agreements.”
The Minsk agreement was negotiated by Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France in February 2015 to end the fighting which broke out in eastern Ukraine after the fall of a Moscow-backed president and the arrival in power of a pro-Western leadership.
(Reporting by Michelle Martin, Andrea Shalal, Andreas Rinke in Berlin, Dmitry Solvyov in Moscow, John Irish in Paris, Stine Jacobsen in Oslo, Natalia Zinets and Alexei Kalmykov in Kiev; Editing by Paul Carrel and Richard Balmforth)