Putin, Hollande attempt to defuse Ukraine tensions

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) approaches to shake hands with his French counterpart Francois Hollande during a meeting at Moscow's Vnukovo airport on Dec 6, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) approaches to shake hands with his French counterpart Francois Hollande during a meeting at Moscow's Vnukovo airport on Dec 6, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande on Saturday became the first European leader to fly to Russia in an attempt to defuse the standoff with Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, where the latest round of peace talks will take place next week.

Meeting with Putin in the diplomatic terminal of an airport outside the capital, Hollande said he hoped to stop a new Berlin wall from appearing in Europe, as the conflict in eastern Ukraine plunged its relations with Moscow to a post-Cold War low.

“There are times when we need to seize opportunities. This is such a time... I think we must prevent other walls from separating us,” said Hollande, who also spoke to Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko earlier in the day.

“We must find solutions together,” he told the Russian leader, who this week gave a militant speech accusing the West of undermining Russia.

As the two sat across from one another, Putin said there are “difficult problems” at hand but that he was sure the visit would “without a doubt contribute to the resolution of many problems,” one of which was bound to be Hollande’s decision to delay delivery of a Mistral-class helicopter carrier to the Russian navy.

Hollande’s last-minute visit, which a source in his delegation said was also agreed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, comes as Kiev announced a fresh round of talks with the pro-Russian separatists next week.

The talks in Belarussian capital Minsk will traditionally include envoys from Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and will aim to “confirm the timetable for implementing the (original) Minsk agreements,” Poroshenko said while on a visit to Kharkiv region.

Ukraine and the rebels, whose fighting in the east has already claimed more than 4,300 lives, have agreed to suspend military operations on Dec 9, calling it a “Day of Silence”.

“In the subsequent 30 days, (the sides) must pull back (heavy weapons) from the demilitarisation zone outlined in the Minsk Protocol,” Poroshenko said.

The pro-Kiev governor of the eastern Lugansk region Gennadiy Moskal on Saturday said two civilians had been killed in a village 15km north-west of Lugansk, while a security spokesman alleged that a convoy of more than 100 trucks and armoured vehicles had moved across the border from Russia on Friday.

Poroshenko said that 1,252 soldiers and volunteers fighting among Kiev’s forces have died over eight months of the conflict, and almost 3,000 have been wounded.

HOLLANDE'S WARSHIP 'OBLIGATION"

The French leader’s visit comes after Putin this week indicated he has no intention of softening his stance on Ukraine, which the West says includes sending regular troops across the border to help the separatist cause.

“Every time someone believes Russia has become too strong, independent, these instruments get applied immediately,” he added, referring to the economic sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States that have weighed on the country’s economy at a time of falling oil prices.

Also hanging over Hollande’s Ukraine diplomacy are two mammoth warships worth US$1.5 billion (S$1.9 billion) that France agreed to deliver to the Russian navy prior to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March.

Moscow is fuming over Hollande’s decision to delay delivery of the first of the carriers to the Russian navy in view of Western concerns over Moscow’s involvement in the conflict.

Paris faces hefty fines if it breaches the contract with Russia, but is under pressure from its allies around the world not to hand over the technology.

Putin said after the meeting that the Mistrals were not discussed but reiterated Moscow’s position that France must honour the contract or return the money.

Hollande, facing the prospect of having two hugely expensive ships on his hands that he cannot sell to another client, has insisted that the contract has not yet been broken.

Russian officials have also stayed clear of ultimatums, with the 400-strong Russian crew of the mammoth assault ships for the time being still in France’s Saint-Nazaire, the city where the shipyard is located and where they are currently training.