The leaders of the "Normandy Four" have convened in Belarus for a round of "last chance" negotiations to try to rein in the escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine.
French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks aimed at reviving the peace process in eastern Ukraine, where both sides of the conflict have stopped even pretending to follow a September ceasefire. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called the meeting a "last-chance negotiation" to keep the conflict from descending into further bloodshed. The United Nations reported that 263 civilians were killed between January 31 and February 5 in the conflict, which has killed at least 5,400 in the past 10 months.
The talks were the first time since October that Putin, who has been accused of funneling weapons and men to the rebels fighting the government in eastern Ukraine, will meet with Poroshenko. Tensions ran high between the two, with Poroshenko briefly storming out of the hall after an "emotional conversation" with Putin, Russian media reported.
Despite tables of Soviet champagne and vodka, the atmosphere was no less tense on the sidelines among journalists from Ukraine and Russia, where loyalist media on both sides have been engaged in an "information war" pushing opposing narratives. Journalist Alexander Yunashev of LifeNews, a publication known for its close relationship with the Kremlin, apparently snapped when asked about his accreditation, and barked at a Ukrainian female journalist on camera. The editor of LifeNews soon came to his reporter's defense, tweeting "In Sasha Yunashev's place I would have just pissed on these 'colleagues.'"
Nineteen Ukrainian soldiers were killed on Wednesday defending Debaltseve, a key railroad junction town that has been in contention as both sides tried to cement their control before talks started. The press center of Kiev's "anti-terrorist operation" said that rebels continued to shell its positions in Debaltseve as the talks got under way on Wednesday night. A rebel holding a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile in Uhlehirsk outside of Debaltseve told LifeNews that two Ukrainian Su fighter jets were flying in the area. A Ukrainian fighter in contact with those inside Debaltseve confirmed this to VICE News.
A contact group made up of representatives of the breakaway people's republics in Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe — who have been convening in Minsk in the lead-up to the meeting of the Normandy Four — were reportedly going to hand a document to the national leaders for consideration. Ukraine's ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Yezhel, told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that all sides were determined to sign a document at the talks.
Aside from recognizing the need for an immediate ceasefire, Russia and Ukraine headed into the negotiations with widely differing positions on key points. Putin reportedly sent a letter to Poroshenko earlier this month outlying his demands, which Russian officials have described, even though the letter was not published. For their part, France and Germany have sought a withdrawal of Russian men and weapons from eastern Ukraine, and have threatened further sanctions if a peace deal isn't reached.
Kiev said any agreement would need to maintain a division line set by the September Minsk protocols, but Moscow was believed to seek the movement of that line west to reflect gains made by the rebels, who have reportedly taken at least 200 square miles of new territory since the September agreement.
In a document given to the contact group on Tuesday, the eastern Ukraine people's republics reportedly suggested that Kiev move its forces back from the de facto line, while they would withdraw their forces from the September line. Hollande said after late-night talks with Putin last week that each side should pull heavy weapons up to 44 miles back from the line, much further than the 9 miles foreseen in the original treaty.
Kiev has opposed the federalization of Donetsk and Luhansk, but passed a law in the fall offering more autonomy to the regions and the possibility to conduct municipal elections. The separatist governments, however, said the measures didn't go far enough and held their own unsanctioned elections. A separate issue is official status for the Russian language in these regions, which Kiev has been amenable to. But the rebels have suggested broad autonomy based on constitutional reforms, which would be difficult to swallow in Kiev.
Kiev and the West want Russia to withdraw its military support for the rebels, which Moscow has denied it is providing. Key to deciding this issue is the porous border that Russian forces can cross unimpeded in many places. Russian Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Ukraine could regain control of the border if it gives the rebels autonomy, resumes pensions and other social payments to the east, and grants amnesty to the rebels.
Poroshenko has repealed Ukraine's official non-aligned status and said the country will consider NATO membership in the coming years. This is absolutely anathema to Putin, who has cited the expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe as a threat to Russia's national interests. NATO itself doesn't appear to want Ukraine, since that would raise the very real possibility of a land war between the alliance and Russia, but extracting an explicit agreement of neutrality for Ukraine from Kiev and its Western supporters has been nearly impossible.
Although no US representative was present, the prospect that the US could begin sending lethal aid to Ukraine loomed over the talks on Wednesday. President Barack Obama said he would consider arming Ukraine if diplomacy failed, and Secretary of State John Kerry this weekend threw his support behind sending weapons. But even advocates of sending arms, which could include sophisticated weapons like Javelin anti-tank missiles, have said they don't believe that it could turn the tide of the conflict against the rebels, who are by all accounts backed by Moscow's $70 billion defense budget. Opponents say the move could provoke an already insecure Putin to grow even more aggressive.
Speaking to VICE News last week, Kremlin-linked analyst Sergei Markov said Russia would supply the breakaway republics with arms sufficient to match anything the United States might provide.
In a statement of reassurance to Ukraine — and of warning to Russia — NATO General Ben Hodges said during a visit to a NATO base in Poland that beginning in March, US troops will train three Ukrainian battalions "in security tasks, medical (tasks), how to operate in an environment where the Russians are jamming (communications), and how to protect (themselves) from Russian and rebel artillery."
Meanwhile, Russian television on Wednesday showed a documentary speculating that Moscow's forces could invade a number of European capitals if it wanted to.