Ukraine ramps up peace talks with French, German envoys


Kiev (AFP)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko held talks Tuesday with top German and French diplomats that sources said aimed to break the uneasy stalemate in the former Soviet nation's pro-Russian separatist revolt.

French presidential envoy Jacques Audibert and his German counterpart Christoph Heusgen came to Kiev as part of a sudden resurgence in efforts to resolve one of Europe's deadliest crises since the 1990s Balkans wars.

US President Barack Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin -- their relations plunging to levels not witnessed since the end of the Cold War -- discussed the conflict during a rare but wide-ranging phone conversation on January 13.

Their aides met two days later in Russia's westernmost exclave to thrash out new pathways to end bloodshed that Kiev and its Western allies insist was provoked and backed by Moscow -- a charge the Kremlin denies.

Poroshenko's website said he met Audibert and Heusgen late Monday to thank them for "the important role" their two nations played in trying to bring peace to the European Union's eastern frontier.

Two Ukrainian sources said the diplomats met Poroshenko for a second time Tuesday after initially placing a visit to Moscow whose details have not been disclosed.

"Right now, all our partners are trying to understand how to end this stalemate because in reality, there has been no improvement," a high-ranking Ukrainian diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The Europeans separately met Ukrainian peace negotiators to gauge their commitment to an all-but-abandoned peace and political reconciliation agreement that Berlin and Paris helped Moscow and Kiev strike in February 2015.

The Ukrainian diplomat said the two Europeans also visited "practically all" lawmakers to see if they intended to pass a stalled Western-backed constitutional amendment granting special status to rebel-run parts of the eastern regions of Lugansk and Donetsk.

But a Ukrainian source said the French and German diplomats were met with a stern rebuff.

"From what I have been told, they were informed that (parliament) lacked the votes to do this," the source told AFP.

Kiev and the insurgents last week signed on to a new truce meant to quell violence that has claimed the lives of more than 9,000 people -- most of them civilians -- since April 2014.

Putin has repeatedly denied playing any direct role in an uprising that began less than two months after the ouster of Ukraine's Kremlin-backed president over his refusal to establish closer ties with the European Union.

But the Russian president admitted for the first time in December that there were "people (in Ukraine) who work on resolving various issues there, including in the military sphere."

- New Russian gas bill -

Moscow added to the pressure on Kiev on Tuesday by announcing that its Gazprom natural gas giant was demanding payment of a previously-undisclosed $2.55 billion (2.35 billion euro) bill for the July to September period of 2015.

Ukraine has been weening itself off Russian energy imports and purchased almost no gas from its eastern neighbour in the period mentioned by Gazprom.

But the Russian firm said the sum it was after fell under the take-or-pay scheme that requires clients to reimburse Gazprom for any contracted gas they failed to purchase in a specific timeframe.

EU-mediated negotiations saw Gazprom drop the disputed provision from a new Ukrainian gas deal it struck for a six-month period starting last October.

Ukraine's own state energy company said it was ready to fight Russia's latest monetary demand in an arbitration court.

Moscow failed to explain why Gazprom had decided to ask for the money nearly four months after it was allegedly due.