Ukraine Ceasefire Giving Peace a Chance

After all-night talks in Minsk, Russia and Ukraine agreed on Thursday to a tentative halt in hostilities starting Sunday. But major questions -- such as the future of eastern Ukraine -- remain unanswered.
German and French negotiators secured a ceasefire in the Ukraine conflict on Thursday. The only question: Will it hold?

As fighting continued to rage in eastern Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin and German and French negotiators on Thursday ended a night of tense talks by announcing a tentative ceasefire to start on Sunday.

The announcement came after 15 hours of often bad-tempered talks between Mr. Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko.

At  a press conference this morning, Mr. Putin said the ceasefire would begin at midnight Saturday.

“We have managed to agree on the main issues,” the Russian president said.

It had not been clear during the night that a deal would be reached at all. On the eve of the talks, officials in Berlin spoke privately about how pessimistic they were about the chances of securing a new pact.

Early Thursday, a weary Mr. Poroshenko left the talks to tell French news agency AFP that Russia was imposing “conditions that I consider unacceptable.”

Mr. Hollande confirmed that leaders had come up with a “serious deal” but said there were still some issues to be agreed on, which he did not disclose.

Mr. Putin said the ceasefire would begin February 15, but made it clear many issues were unresolved.

The agreement is not a breakthrough, but could be a step from a spiral of military escalation towards political momentum. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister

Still at issue between Russia and Ukraine is the fate of Debaltseve, a strategically important railway town near rebel-controlled positions.

Ukrainian soldiers were fighting separatists near the town as talks were held in Minsk.

Mr. Putin said he and Mr. Poroshenko had not managed to agree on who controls the region. The separatists claim to control the area, but Ukraine is refusing to surrender.

Both leaders said they will seek to clarify the situation soon.

Mr. Poroshenko said he and Mr. Putin had agreed a deal to withdraw all heavy weaponry from the front lines, and give Ukraine back control of its borders. Some stretches are of the border controlled by separatist rebels and Ukraine has accused Russia of sending arms through.

It was also clear that Russia expected Ukraine to implement political reform in the east of the country.

“The first thing is constitutional reform that should take into consideration the legitimate rights of people who live in Donbass. There are also border issues. Finally there are a whole range of economic and humanitarian issues,” Mr. Putin said.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the talks as “extremely difficult.” He said in a statement “the agreement is not a breakthrough, but could be a step from a spiral of military escalation towards political momentum.”


Merkel, Hollande, Putin and Poroschenko arrive in Minsk.


Mr. Hollande and Ms. Merkel will meet E.U. leaders later today at a summit in Brussels to seek backing for the new agreement. The issue of more sanctions against Russia are on the agenda, but this morning’s deal means it is less likely that more sanctions will be imposed.

The International Monetary Fund announced today it would give Ukraine another $40 billion bailout package to run over four years, with $17.5 billion coming from the IMF and the rest from the international community.

IMF head Christine Lagarde praised Ukraine for its “commitment to ambitious reform,” raising energy prices, reducing its deficit and cracking down on corruption and money laundering.

The IMF had offered a $17 billion package last year, but it was put on ice as fighting broke out.

The new ceasefire and bailout package are desperately needed in Ukraine, where a year of fighting and political upheaval has brought the economy to its knees and raised the spectre of a larger war in Europe

On Wednesday evening the Ukranian hryvnia, the worst-performing currency in the world last year, fell to an all-time low.

A ceasefire signed in Minsk September 5 was violated within days of being signed and fell apart four months later.


Quelle: dpa
Igor Plotnitsky, leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, left, and Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the Donetsk People's Republic, speak to reporters in Minsk.
(Source: dpa)


If negotiations had failed, the European Union would probably have tightened sanctions against Russia. And the United States might also move ahead and send arms to the Ukrainian military, which Germany and some other European governments oppose.

The ceasefire provides a temporary reprieve for Ms. Merkel, who traveled to Washington on Monday to persuade President Barack Obama to hold off on sending weapons. Germany is the largest trading partner of Russia and German exporters have been hit hard by western sanctions on the country.

Part of the debate will focus on if and when Russia should be brought back into the fold. The Russian economy nosedived last year, hit by falling energy prices and sanctions after Russia annexed Crimea.

In Germany, companies have been hoping the talks would yield a lasting truce. Rainer Dulger, head of German metals company Gesamtmetall, said he hoped the talks would produce a face-saving solution for Russia.

But Michael Harms, managing director of the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce Abroad in Moscow, warned that sanctions may ultimately cement anti-western sentiment in Russia.

Some Russian companies have avoided goods made in the United States and Europe, and sanctions and the falling ruble have exacerbated this trend.


Meera Selva is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition and covers European politics.  Handelsblatt correspondents Thomas Sigmund and Mathias Brüggmann also contributed to this article.  To contact the author: [email protected]