Russia takes its time as Ukraine struggles

Russia takes its time as Ukraine struggles
Pro-Russian separatist rebels force-marched dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war along the main street of the rebel-held Ukrainian town of Donetsk on Sunday.

LONDON - Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko meets his Russian counterpart, Mr Vladimir Putin, today for the first substantial face-to-face negotiations since the crisis between the two neighbours erupted earlier this year.

However, diplomats who brokered the meeting privately acknowledge that its only realistic outcome would be some agreement to contain the bloodshed.

The higher objective of achieving a negotiated settlement in Ukraine remains beyond grasp, at least as long as Mr Putin continues to believe that he holds the initiative and is prepared to play a waiting game while Ukraine's economy and government buckle under the pressure.

European governments are worried that the Ukraine conflict, now in its sixth month, is dangerously escalating beyond anyone's control.

Ukraine is accusing Russia of an outright invasion after more than 200 heavy Russian lorries described as a "humanitarian convoy" forced their way into Ukrainian territory last week without permission from the country's government, ostensibly in order to relieve besieged ethnic Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

In response, the Ukrainian government staged a massive show of military force at an independence day parade during the past weekend.

And tempers were frayed even further by a decision of the Russian rebels to parade Ukrainian prisoners under their detention.

The sight of exhausted Ukrainian soldiers being dragged through the streets of rebel towns, where they were spat upon, intensified the pressure on President Poroshenko to crush the rebellion.

Fearing that this would transform what was hitherto a proxy conflict into a full-fledged war in the heart of Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the continent's most influential leader, worked hard to broker today's meeting in the Belarussian capital of Minsk.

The hope is that the presence at the summit of not only presidents Putin and Poroshenko, but also of the leaders of Kazakhstan and Belarus, with whom Russia has close relations, may persuade participants to talk about economic cooperation rather than military confrontation.

Ms Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, is also on hand.

A potential deal, teased out by Dr Merkel in private talks over the past week, is straightforward enough.

Ukraine has offered to grant ethnic Russians a large measure of local autonomy, provided they lay down their arms immediately.

In return, Russia would be expected to stop championing the rebels' cause and to lift its economic embargo on Ukraine.

Both neighbours would then be invited to renew their trade talks with the European Union.

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