Germany and key European partners are pressing Ukraine to speed up implementing the Minsk ceasefire agreement— for fear of giving Russia excuses for renewed aggression.
The warnings from Berlin, Paris and London come as EU officials led by Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, are due on Monday to start their first EU-Ukraine summit in Kiev since the Ukraine crisis broke out a year ago.
They coincide with renewed tensions between Russia and the US over Ukraine, with Washington and Moscow trading allegations of increased military involvement in conflict zones.
The latest European comments highlight EU desires to ease tensions with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, even at the cost of irritating Kiev.
EU diplomats readily admit the separatists violate the Minsk ceasefire far more often than Kiev. But they urge president Petro Poroshenko to stick to the accord and implement its political clauses.
The word among German diplomats is that Kiev needs to be “more co-operative”. Stefan Meister, of Berlin’s DGAP foreign policy think-tank, said: “German officials are talking to both sides, but especially to the Ukrainians because if they don’t do what’s necessary, the Russians will always have the possibility of renewing the conflict.”
In France, President François Hollande said during a visit by Mr Poroshenko last week: “The only line of conduct is the full implementation of the Minsk accord.”
In the UK, which has followed the US in taking a tougher line against Moscow, an official said Ukraine should fulfil its side of the Minsk deal and “not give Russia the space to criticise them”.
The latest Minsk accord, agreed in February under pressure from Germany and France, has reduced fighting and led to the withdrawal of some heavy weapons from front lines, though soldiers and civilians still die almost daily.
But Berlin is worried that Kiev is dragging its feet over other parts of the fragile deal, notably in trying to postpone political decentralisation until after local elections are staged in separatist-held territory.
For Ukraine this is critical because it does not want to hand over power to separatist leaders in the Donbas region, who are not recognised by the international community. EU diplomats say, however, that while local elections are indeed envisaged under Minsk, the accord does not insist that they take place before decentralisation.
Dmytro Kuleba, a senior Ukrainian foreign ministry official, dismissed charges of delaying tactics as “perfect hypocrisy”, saying Russia was encouraging this perception while continuing its aggression.
Kiev has, however, acted on another EU concern. Last week, lawmakers softened recent legislation banning Soviet and Nazi symbols. The planned law had raised fears in Russia of a campaign to remove monuments and rename streets dating from the Soviet era. Now such decisions are planned to be devolved to regional authorities.
But Russia is maintaining the pressure. The foreign ministry on Friday accused Kiev of having “no political will” to implement the Minsk agreement.
Meanwhile, Berlin is also pressing EU officials to be conciliatory with Moscow. Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier wrote this month to Mr Juncker urging the EU to ease “Russian concerns” over a deep free-trade agreement with Ukraine.
The planned deal helped trigger the initial crisis when it fuelled Russian fears of losing influence in Kiev. Implementation was postponed last year in the face of Russian resistance, with the hope of discussing the matter at trilateral talks between Moscow, Kiev and Brussels.
But Kiev is loath to involve Russia in what it sees as a bilateral accord — and Moscow has warned Ukraine against unilateral implementation. Mr Steinmeier has urged a start to the three-way talks, asking Mr Juncker to “use the considerable flexibility that the agreement offers”.
Additional reporting by Alex Barker in Brussels, Neil Buckley in London and Anne-Sylvaine Chassany in Paris
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