Give Ukraine peace a chance: Merkel

Published: Tuesday 10th February 2015 by The News Editor

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US president Barack Obama and German chancellor Angela Merkel have rallied behind efforts to reach a long-shot diplomatic resolution to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but offered no clear path if talks fail.

During a joint White House news conference, Mr Obama dangled the prospect that the US could for the first time send anti-tank weapons and other defensive arms to Ukraine. While no decision has been made, the president said he had ordered his team to consider “whether there are additional things we can do to help Ukraine bolster its defences in the face of Russian aggression”.

Mrs Merkel, who has perhaps the most productive relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin, staunchly opposes arming Ukraine’s beleaguered military and made clear she had not given up on the possibility that diplomatic negotiations could produce an elusive peace plan.

“It has always proved to be right to try again and again to sort such a conflict,” she said.

Later, during a joint news conference with Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa, Mrs Merkel reiterated: “I hope that we shall be able to solve this conflict by diplomatic means because I think by military means it cannot be solved.”

Mr Harper said he admired the efforts by Germany and France to bring about a peaceful solution, but added: “Unfortunately at this time Mr Putin has rejected diplomatic means. He seems to move his agenda through military violence.”

The US and Europe have focused on economic sanctions in their punitive actions against Russia. The penalties, along with plummeting oil prices, have caused significant damage to Russia’s economy.

The European Union decided yesterday to temporarily hold off on ordering more sanctions on the Russians and Ukrainian separatists while awaiting the outcome of this week’s peace talks.

The US and Europe have largely been in agreement on their response to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, raising the possibility that a public split over lethal aid is merely a tactic to push Mr Putin to strike a deal to end the fighting. Mr Obama and Mrs Merkel both repeatedly said America and Europe would stay united in efforts to stop Russian provocations.

The White House meetings followed German and French-led talks last week with Mr Putin and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. The parties will meet again tomorrow in the Belarusian capital Minsk. The United States has not been at the table for either set of discussions.

Meanwhile a powerful explosion rocked a chemical plant in eastern Ukraine and set it on fire outside the separatist stronghold of Donetsk. Rebels said government shelling hit the plant, which lies in the middle of Ukraine’s industrial heartland.

More than 5,300 people have been killed since fighting in eastern Ukraine began in April, according to a United Nations tally. Ukraine said about 1,500 Russian troops had crossed the border into Ukraine via rebel-controlled border posts over the weekend, but military spokesman Andriy Lysenko did not provide any proof.

Russia has denied supplying the rebels with either troops or heavy weapons, but Western military experts say the sheer amount of new heavy weapons in eastern Ukraine belies the Russian denial.

Ukraine and the rebels reached a peace deal last year, but it has repeatedly been broken by both sides. The bloodshed in eastern Ukraine has markedly increased over the past two weeks, leading to both the new diplomatic manoeuvring and Mr Obama’s re-evaluation of sending Ukraine military aid.

A senior administration official said Mr Obama’s national security team has been discussing a range of options for helping the Ukrainian military hold its ground in the east. But the options have not formally been presented to the president yet.

Mr Obama gave no indication of how quickly he would make a decision on possibly ramping up military assistance, nor did he indicate whether there was a specific development that might trigger that step.

“The measure by which I make these decisions is, is it more likely to be effective than not,” he said.

Even if he comes down in favour of sending Ukraine defensive weapons, his advisers have downplayed the notion that doing so might tip the scales of the conflict.

The president’s goal, aides say, would be to help the Ukrainians hold their positions, not necessarily give them the level of weaponry that would be required to put them on the same level as the Russian-backed forces.

The US has so far limited its military assistance to non-lethal equipment, including gas masks and radar technology to detect incoming fire. If Mr Obama approves lethal aid, the US could send Ukraine anti-tank missiles, such as the Javelin weapon system, along with armoured vehicles and intelligence systems that could allow forces to better anticipate incoming offensives.

Details of the proposals being discussed between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France have not been revealed. However a French diplomatic official said a demilitarised zone between Ukraine and Russia was a “condition” for a ceasefire, but remained a sticking point in the new international push for peace.

The official said other main difficulties include how to police the Ukrainian-Russian border to ensure Russia is not sending troops or equipment to the separatists. Ukrainian officials would have the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe conduct such monitoring.

Another potentially problematic area: the future status of regions in eastern Ukraine now under control of pro-Russian rebels. Ukraine passed a law last year proposing what it called significant autonomy for the east, but rebels dismissed it as vague and meaningless.

Russia has pushed for “federalisation” of Ukraine, which would presumably give the east significant independence, but Ukrainian authorities oppose that.

Published: Tuesday 10th February 2015 by The News Editor

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