Auteur: Andrew Rettman
Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany have agreed on a new ceasefire deal and further talks on trade and gas supplies.
The almost 17-hour long meeting in Minsk on Wednesday (11 February) and Thursday yielded two documents: a 13-point ceasefire accord signed by the Contact Group, and a political declaration endorsed by the four leaders.
The ceasefire accord is entitled: Package of Measures Aimed at Implementing the Agreements in Minsk.
The ceasefire itself is to start at midnight local time in Donetsk and Luhansk, in east Ukraine, on Saturday (15 February).
Two days later, and over a period of two weeks, the two sides are to pull back heavy artillery 50km and rocket launchers 140km from the contact line.
On Sunday, they are to start a “dialogue” on the extent of territories to be granted a “special status” and to hold local elections in line with the Ukrainian constitution.
There is to be an “amnesty” on all people “involved in the events” in east Ukraine.
Both sides are to release “all” prisoners no later than five days after the troop pull-back.
The Russia-controlled fighters are to hand back control of the Russia-Ukraine border by the end of the year.
All “foreign” fighters are to leave Ukrainian territory and all “illegal groups” are to lay down their arms (no deadline).
Ukraine is, by the end of the year, to pass constitutional reforms on “decentralisation”. Ukraine, hand in hand with an “international mechanism”, is also to begin help banks in the conflict zone start making social payments, including pensions.
The Contact Group is made up of representatives from Ukraine, Russia, the Russia-controlled rebels, and the OSCE, a European multilateral body, with OSCE monitors to oversee implementation.
It affirms “full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine” and says “there is no alternative to an exclusively peaceful solution” of the conflict.
It speaks of more “trilateral” (EU-Russia-Ukraine) talks on Russian gas supplies to Ukraine and on “practical solutions” to Russia’s “concerns” on the EU-Ukraine free trade agreement.
It also says the four countries will create an additional “regulatory mechanism” to oversee implementation, which will meet “regularly” at the level of “senior officials from the ministries of foreign affairs”.
Speaking to press after the talks ended in the Belarusian president’s palace on Thursday morning, Merkel said there is a “real chance to change things for the better”, but added she has “no illusions there is still very, very much work to be done".
German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the deal a “step which takes us away from the spiral of military escalation”.
He added it is “not a total solution" and warned there should be “no euphoria” at this stage.
Hollande was more optimistic.
He called the agreement a “serious deal” and a “great relief for Europe”, adding “we have very high hopes”.
He also said it “is a good example for Europe of what the Franco-German tandem can can achieve for the sake of peace”.
Poroshenko noted: “The main thing which has been achieved is that from Saturday into Sunday there should be declared without any conditions at all, a general ceasefire”.
He also said the prisoner swap includes Russia’s release of Nadiya Savchenko, a captured Ukrainian air-force pilot (later voted MP) who is on hunger strike in a Russian prison.
Putin told press: “this was not the best night of my life, but the morning, in my opinion, is good because, despite all the difficulties of the negotiation process, we still managed to agree on the essentials”.
He said the talks took so long because Poroshenko declined “direct contacts with representatives of the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republic”.
Ukraine has designated them as “terrorist” entities. But Putin added that “it is necessary to proceed from the realities of life, and if they all want to agree on a long-term basis to build a relationship, then you need to go for direct contact”.
Hollande, Merkel, and Poroshenko are to travel from Minsk to Brussels where they will present the outcome of the negotiations to EU leaders at a previously-scheduled summit.
The EU Council said the event, which was due to focus on counter-terrorism, will begin at 3pm local time instead of 1pm.
A senior EU official told press on Wednesday that if the Minsk talks had failed, leaders would have tasked EU institutions to draw up plans for extra economic sanctions on Russia.
The source added: “If [the talks are] positive, EU leaders will welcome the result, but will stay cautious and wait to see if there is a real ceasefire. This is because they have experience of the previous Minsk agreement [last September], when peace lasted only 40 hours”.
The contact also said that the deal is unlikely to be “black or white”, but rather a shade of “grey”.
For his part, Italian PM Matteo Renzi, arriving in the EU capital, called it "a great result".
But its critics are likely to note the troop pull-back from the contact line de facto entrenches territorial gains made by Russian forces in the past five months.
The ceasefire agreement makes no mention of Crimea, which Russia annexed last March.
It also makes no mention of EU, US, and Ukrainian claims that Russia is a direct party to the conflict because its regular armed forces are fighting inside Ukraine.
On the other hand, it drops Russian calls for the “federalisation” of Ukraine.
The International Monetary Fund, earlier on Thursday, also gave good news in the form of a €15.5 billion financial aid package to Ukraine.
But Ukraine reported that 50 Russian tanks and 40 mobile rocket launchers crossed into Ukrainian territory during the night of the Minsk talks.
The conflict has claimed more than 5,300 lives, with 14 more civilians and two soldiers killed while the four leaders spoke.