French, German Leaders Negotiate Ukraine Ceasefire

Leaders agree to a truce but Ukraine is still a long way off from ending the war in the Donbas region.

Presidents François Hollande of France and Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine walk with German chancellor Angela Merkel to a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, February 11
Presidents François Hollande of France and Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine walk with German chancellor Angela Merkel to a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, February 11 (Press Service of the President of Ukraine)

The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine agreed to a ceasefire for the War in Donbas in the early hours of Thursday after lengthy negotiations in Belarus’ capital Minsk.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, who had jointly initiated the talks with French president François Hollande, told reporters the deal offered a “glimmer of hope” but admitted obstacles remained in the way of peace.

The truce would go into effect on Sunday following the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontline and is conditioned on constitutional reforms that should give the eastern regions of Ukraine more autonomy from the government in Kiev.

The outlines of the deal are similar to one negotiated in September. That first ceasefire broke down when fighting continued in the Donbas region.

The Russian-backed separatists wanted the recent ceasefire to reflect territorial gains they have made since then. Under a compromise, the rebels are to withdraw from the frontline set by the earlier Minsk agreement while Ukrainian government forces are to pull back from the current frontline.

Russia still denies it supports the insurgency even if Russian soldiers and weapons have found their way into Ukraine.

The Kremlin said it would respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territory but violated previous such pledges, including one it made in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum after Ukraine had won its independence from Russia, by occupying and annexing the Crimean Peninsula.

The government in Kiev is supposed to amnesty all rebel fighters and resume the payment of pensions and social benefits to the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk where separatists declared breakaway republics last year.

Under the latest Minsk agreement, it is also to regain control of its border with Russia but only by the end of the year, after local elections are held in the east and constitutional reforms are enacted to give the rebel regions more autonomy.

Specifically, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions would be allowed to choose their own official language, which would presumably be Russian rather than Ukrainian, and get to form their own police forces as well as a say in appointing judges and prosecutors.

The regions would not get a veto over Ukrainian foreign-policy decisions, something Russia had wanted. It triggered the crisis last year when it tried to prevent Ukraine from entering into an association agreement with the European Union.

Although the current Ukrainian government officially seeks NATO membership, Hollande emphasized before the talks it was unlikely to join the Western military alliance anytime soon. Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, similarly said late last year NATO membership for Ukraine would be a “project of the next few generations.”

The ceasefire does not affect the economic sanctions European countries and the United States imposed on Russia after its annexation of the Crimea. The measures triggered a trade war with Russia banning certain agricultural imports from Eastern Europe and reducing natural gas flows to Poland and Slovakia.

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