Kiev (AFP), by Charles Onians with Danny Kemp in Brussels
European powers warned Russia it risked fresh sanctions if a ceasefire deal aimed at ending the 10-month war between Ukraine troops and pro-Moscow rebels was not implemented.
The agreement to end the nearly year-long conflict, which has killed thousands and ratcheted East-West tensions to highs not seen since the Cold War, was reached early Thursday after marathon talks in the Belarussian capital Minsk between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.
Kiev and the West accuse Russia of stoking the war in ex-Soviet Ukraine by pouring arms and troops to help the pro-Russian rebels fighting Kiev government troops in Ukraine’s industrial east. Moscow denies the charges.
Speaking late Thursday after a European Union summit in Brussels, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Russia that the bloc, which has already slapped Moscow with sanctions over the crisis, was not ruling out further measures if the truce failed.
“If it works well we would be very happy to go with the agreement. If there are difficulties we wouldn’t rule out other sanctions,” she said.
French President Francois Hollande, who along with Merkel attended the 17-hour talks in Minsk that also included Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, agreed.
If the ceasefire deal was not respected, “we would return to a process… of sanctions that would be in addition to those already in place.”
Hollande also said that the conditions were not yet right for France to resume with the delivery of two Mistral warships to Russia, a 1.2-billion-euro sale that Paris was forced to suspend over the Ukraine crisis.
Under the deal reached in Minsk, a ceasefire is to take effect at midnight Kiev time on Sunday (2200 GMT on Saturday) and heavy weapons are to be withdrawn from the frontlines of the conflict, which has killed at least 5,300 people and driven a million people from their homes since erupting in April 2014.
Poroshenko described the 17-hour talks as “very difficult” and said he expected the implementation of the deal would not be easy.
– Escalating violence –
Brussels first imposed targeted sanctions on individuals after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 but adopted tougher economic measures after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in July.
European Council President Donald Tusk said Poroshenko had given EU leaders a “sobering assessment” of the deal, and said the 28-member bloc was ready “to take the necessary steps” to keep up the pressure on Russia.
“Our trust in the goodwill of President Putin is limited, this is why we have to maintain our decision on sanctions,” he told a press conference.
The United States, which has said it could supply Ukraine with weapons if the conflict continues, cautiously welcomed the peace accord, but emphasised the work yet to be done in making it stick.
“The true test of today’s accord will be in its full and unambiguous implementation,” the White House said, including “restoration of Ukrainian control over its border with Russia.”
The Ukrainian government accused Russia of deploying another 50 tanks across the border during the talks in Minsk, with fighting expected to continue around disputed railway hub Debaltseve, which rebels claim to have surrounded.
The roadmap was signed by Russian and Ukrainian envoys, separatist leaders and European mediators from the OSCE.
A previous truce signed in Minsk last September quickly collapsed.
– Money and guns –
Beset by war and corruption, Ukraine’s pro-Western government is struggling to enact legal and economic reforms that would help steer the former Soviet republic out of Russia’s sphere of influence and into Western institutions.
The Kiev government got a major boost Thursday with the announcement by IMF chief Christine Lagarde of a new financial rescue plan worth $17.5 billion.
In total, Ukraine will receive $40 billion (35 billion euros) in assistance over four years coupled with bilateral loans from other sources, Lagarde said, helping to stabilise Kiev’s finances after 10 months of conflict in the east.
The World Bank for its part announced it was prepared to provide up to $2 billion in financial assistance to Ukraine this year.
The new Minsk agreement is broadly similar to the first one, except that the new heavy weapons-free zone will be 50 to 70 kilometres (31-43 miles) wide, depending on the range of the weapon, double the width of the buffer zone agreed in September.
Kiev will also begin retaking control over the approximately 400-kilometre (250 mile) stretch of Russia’s border with rebel-held Ukraine, but only after local elections are held.
The border is entirely under Russian and pro-Russian rebel control and is used, according to Kiev, as a conduit for separatist supplies. The Kremlin denies this but has opposed Ukraine being allowed to regain control of the frontier.
While heavy weapons must be withdrawn, troops and rebels can remain where they are, handing rebels de facto control of the roughly 500 square kilometres of territory they’ve gained in recent weeks.
Separatist-held territories will be granted a degree of autonomy to be established through talks, and the right to decide which language they use.