Hollande’s office reports ‘fragile progress’ in Ukraine crisis

Putin meets US and Ukrainian leaders on sidelines of D-Day commemorations

Ukraine’s president-elect Petro Poroshenko (right) and Russian president Vladimir Putin during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day in Ouistreham, France, yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Christophe Ena

Ukraine’s president-elect Petro Poroshenko (right) and Russian president Vladimir Putin during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day in Ouistreham, France, yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Christophe Ena

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00

Russian president Vladimir Putin met briefly with the pro-Europe Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko during D-Day commemorations in Normandy yesterday. In another sign that the crisis over Ukraine may be easing, Mr Putin also talked to US president Barack Obama for the first time since Russia annexed Crimea in March.

French president François Hollande laid the groundwork for both meetings during separate dinners with Mr Obama and Mr Putin in Paris on Thursday night. The Élysée said the meetings constituted “fragile progress” .

The German chancellor Angela Merkel introduced Mr Putin to Mr Poroshenko as they walked from the “family photo” of 20 heads of states and government into lunch at Bénouville Château.

Mr Putin later told journalists that Mr Poroshenko “has the right approach and I liked that”. Mr Poroshenko was elected on May 25th. Russia’s dispatch of an ambassador to his swearing-in ceremony in Kiev today was interpreted as a form of recognition.

Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said the two leaders agreed that “the bloodshed in southeast Ukraine should stop”. Kiev sent troops to the region on May 13th to put down a rebellion by pro-Russian separatists. Hundreds of people are believed dead following fierce clashes between the sides.

‘Serious exchange’

Mr Peskov said it had been “a normal, serious exchange between two leaders” who began “a dialogue about possible ways of de-escalating.” He said “the modalities of a ceasefire [between Kiev and the pro-Russian separatists] will be discussed in coming days”.

Until the White House announced that Mr Obama too had spoken with Mr Putin, the US and Russian presidents gave the impression of going out of their way to avoid each other. They made no eye contact and were seated with at least three people between them at lunch and in the stands at the commemoration ceremony. White House spokesman Ben Rhodes said the meeting lasted 10 or 15 minutes, also on the sidelines of the lunch. “President Obama underscored that the successful Ukrainian election provides an opportunity that should be taken,” Mr Rhodes said.

The US leader “made clear that de-escalation depends upon Russia recognising President-elect Poroshenko as the legitimate leader of Ukraine, ceasing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and stopping the provision of arms and materiel across the border”, Mr Rhodes added.

Mr Obama wielded both a carrot and a stick. He “made clear that a failure to take these steps would only deepen Russia’s isolation”, Mr Rhodes said. The G7 summit in Brussels on Thursday had threatened more severe US and EU sanctions against Russia within weeks if there were no signs of de-escalation. However, if Russia co-operates with Ukraine’s new government, Mr Rhodes said, “President Obama indicated that there could be openings to reduce tensions.”

The Élysée had hoped that yesterday’s commemorations would improve Mr Hollande’s image at home and abroad. The French leader realised his goal of being a “facilitator” in the Ukrainian crisis. France also wants Russia to stop threatening to cut gas supply to Ukraine.

Mr Hollande proved useful, but Dr Merkel appears to have been the real mediator. She discussed Ukraine with Mr Putin for an hour in Deauville yesterday. Her spokesman said the German leader told him that Russia had “a great responsibility” to foster peace in Ukraine. Dr Merkel could be seen chatting with the Russian leader in a friendly manner throughout the day. It was she, not Mr Hollande, who oversaw the Putin-Poroshenko meeting.

The Europeans continue to have a more conciliatory approach to Mr Putin than Mr Obama. At the G7 summit, Dr Merkel said further sanctions would be enacted only if there had been “no progress whatsoever”.