Merkel, Hollande in Moscow for Ukraine Talks

Merkel, Hollande in Moscow  for Ukraine TalksMerkel, Hollande in Moscow  for Ukraine Talks

The leaders of Germany and France announced a new peace plan for Ukraine on Thursday, before flying to Moscow on Friday to discuss their plan with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to follow up on Russia's peace plan offer.

With Washington moving toward a decision soon on arming Ukraine, US Secretary of State John Kerry also visited Kiev on Thursday. He had no plans to go to Moscow and was not involved in the Franco-German initiative, although he supported it. 

The coordinated trip by Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Francois Hollande comes as rebels advanced on a railway hub held by Ukrainian troops after launching an offensive that scuppered a five-month-old ceasefire, Reuters said in a report.

It also comes as civilians in the key town of Debaltseve are being forced to hide underground as Ukrainian forces trying to hold out against rebel attacks.

Before leaving for Moscow, the French president said securing a ceasefire for eastern Ukraine was just a first step and that a “comprehensive agreement” must be sought.

Merkel said she and Hollande were not on the road as neutral mediators but were representing European interests. “These interests are peace, maintaining Europe’s peaceful order.”

The importance of reaching a deal was demonstrated by a dramatic collapse in Ukraine’s hryvnia currency, which lost nearly a third of its value after the central bank halted daily auctions at which it sold hard currency to banks.

Moscow said it hoped talks with Merkel and Hollande would be “constructive.”

German government sources said the key problem for resuming peace talks was that the current front line no longer tallies with what was agreed at talks in Minsk, Belarus, last year. One idea was that a new attempt at a ceasefire should take in the current front line, which reflects rebel gains.

For talks to begin anew, Kiev would have to accept that the separatists now control several hundred square kilometers more than agreed in Minsk -- without Kiev having to give up its claim to these areas as part of the Ukrainian state.

In the end, the goal of the peace process should be the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the sources said.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said Kiev would not consider any peace plan that casts doubt on the nation’s territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence.

  Franco-German Plan

The Franco-German plan looks like an eleventh-hour bid to halt the escalation of the conflict ahead of diplomatic deadlines likely to make east-west confrontation even worse.

Peace talks collapsed on Saturday in Belarus and EU leaders are expected to consider new sanctions against Moscow next week.

“Together with Angela Merkel we have decided to take a new initiative,” Hollande told a news conference. “We will make a new proposal to solve the conflict which will be based on Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”

He and Merkel met President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev on Thursday and were expected to go to Moscow to see Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Friday.

Poroshenko said the talks “gave hope that there will be a result in a ceasefire”, his office said in a statement.

Hollande said earlier that “For several days Angela Merkel and I have worked on a text ... a text that can be acceptable to all.” However, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier played down the prospect of a breakthrough. “I don’t want to talk about the chances (of success). At this stage there is hope, rather than chances.”

  Ukraine Arms Deal

US President Barack Obama will decide soon whether to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons to fight the separatists, Kerry said during his visit to Kiev.

In Washington, Republican Senator John McCain said US lawmakers would write legislation requiring the United States to send arms to Ukraine if Obama does not do so. But European defense ministers meeting in Brussels opposed sending arms, suggesting a transatlantic split over the issue.

Moscow said it would consider any US arms sent to Kiev to be a security threat.

Poroshenko told a German newspaper it was time for NATO to send “modern weapons for protection and for resisting the aggressor.”

War and corruption have nearly bankrupted Ukraine, and Western sanctions and falling oil prices have also hurt Russia.

But Ukraine is by far the poorer of the two, and the collapse in the hryvnia was stunning. The central bank auctions scrapped on Thursday had enabled banks to set a value for the hryvnia, and without them traders had trouble finding a floor. A dramatic hike in the main interest rate to 19.5 percent from 14 percent did nothing to stop the plunge.