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When she arrived at the Brussels summit on Thursday, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s face bore the signs of the sleepless nights she has endured in the past week in a prodigious quest for a settlement of the Ukraine crisis.
But despite the deep rings around her eyes, there was no rest in sight for Europe’s most powerful leader. Just hours after the all-night Ukraine negotiations in Minsk, she was preparing for talks with her 27 fellow EU leaders — not least the radical new Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, with whom Germany is clashing over the country’s bailout.
“I have a certain camel-like quality,” Ms Merkel, 60, once said, explaining her capacity to keep going when others would have collapsed with tiredness. She has needed every ounce of it this week covering about 20,000 kilometres on an itinerary of Berlin-Kiev-Berlin-Moscow-Munich- Berlin-Washington-Ottawa-Berlin-Minsk-Brussels.
That travel reflects the desperate difficulty of securing any kind of agreement from Russian president Vladimir Putin. For all the effort, the ceasefire deal struck on Thursday morning is little different from a previous one reached in Minsk last September but never implemented.
Upon arrival in Brussels, Ms Merkel was more sober than triumphant, saying: “This is a glimmer of hope. Deeds must now follow words.”
It is her political style to tackle difficult problems step by step. With the Ukraine crisis, the first aim has long been to stop the fighting — and then hope that a ceasefire can create a little breathing space for further talks and, perhaps, movement.
German officials concede that full implementation of the latest Minsk agreement might be a long shot — but believe even a “frozen conflict” in which the two sides did nothing more than stop fighting, would be worth the huge diplomatic effort.
The latest initiative sprang from a letter Mr Putin sent a month ago to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko offering peace talks. With the support of French president François Hollande, Ms Merkel decided it was worth engaging the Russian leader, especially with the fighting intensifying around the strategic town of Debaltseve and growing calls in the US for the west to arm Kiev.
Days of shuttle diplomacy finally brought the Minsk meeting — and buckets of praise at home for the dogged chancellor.
“Merkel: the world chancellor” ran a headline in Bild, the tabloid.
Even Gregor Gysi, leader of the far-left Linke party and who has fought Ms Merkel for years, allowed himself to say: “If the chancellor succeeds, I will find the words to praise her.”
But as Ms Merkel said herself, huge challenges still lie ahead.
First, there is the need to maintain pressure on Mr Putin to stop the fighting — even though the chancellor’s capacity to squeeze the Russian president is limited.
Next, there is holding together the EU on economic sanctions against Russia. The escalating fighting has made this easier in the short term. Penalties imposed on individuals and companies over Moscow’s Crimea annexation have been extended to September. But the critical test comes in the summer, when broader economic sanctions come up for review.
In the meantime, Germany will be at the forefront of negotiations with Mr Tsipras, who is determined to amend Greece’s bailout. Berlin has come under pressure to give ground. But it fears doing so would have consequences far beyond Greece, effectively undermining desperately needed reform efforts across the eurozone.
In short, the leader striving to contain Europe’s simmering crises faces more sleepless nights.