A foreign ministers meeting in Berlin didn't lead to a breakthrough. The negotiations between the heads of state had to be postponed. Despite international efforts, peace in eastern Ukraine remains illusory.
A small yellow bus perforated by shrapnel, the snow around it red with blood. These pictures shocked Ukraine. At least 12 people died in a shooting close to the eastern Ukrainian town of Volnovakha on Tuesday: five men and seven women.
In a tlevised, late-night speech, President Petro Poroshenko blamed pro-Russian separatists for the gruesome act, calling them terrorists and inhuman. The separatists and the Russian government blamed Ukraine. "This was another crime by the Ukrainian army," a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in Moscow on Wednesday.
The incident occurred only one day after negotiations about a lasting peace in eastern Ukraine failed in Berlin. The foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France could not agree on a common path. A meeting of these four countries' heads of state and government planned for Friday in Kazakhstan's capital Astana was then canceled.
More and more victims, despite official ceasefire
The talks in Berlin were about the implementation of the so-called Minsk Protocol. In September, the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian separatists had agreed on a kind of peace plan for the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. But not a single one of the 12 points worked out with the help of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Russia has been implemented.
While there are no more large offensives, like the ones that happened in summer, several places have seen fighting. Soldiers die almost daily, as do civilians, as in the Volnovakha shooting. The total number of deaths since the beginning of the conflict in early 2014 comes up to 5,000 according to the UN.
During the foreign ministers' talks in Berlin, the separatists intensified their bombardment of Ukrainian soldiers at the bitterly contested Donetsk airport. The tower, riddled with holes, caved in on itself.
Minsk Protocol violated numerous times
The diplomatic effort is in shambles. For about a year now, the West ,and Germany in particular, have tried to find a political solution to the Ukraine conflict. There have been countless rounds of talks in various formats: video conferences, telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings - like the one in Berlin. Still, a compromise has not be reached to date.
Both sides say they're committed to the Minsk Protocol, but they're only paying lip service. Ukraine's government accuses the separatists and Russia of not wanting to fulfill several core components of the protocol. They say that a 200-kilometer-long stretch of the Russian-Ukrainian border is still open . Kyiv claims that weapons and fighters from Russia have been getting into the separatists' provinces through this hole for months.
Russia denies these claims, but admits the presence of "volunteers." The OSCE reports a growing number of men and women in uniform who are crossing the Russian border into the eastern Ukrainian areas occupied by Russia.
Violating the Minsk Protocol, the separatists held their own "elections" in November. As a response, Kyiv abrogated the law concerning the factual autonomy for parts of eastern Ukraine and halted all payment of wages and pensions.
The only section of the protocol that sees progress is the prisoner exchange. But here, too, more action is called for. There still seem to be hundreds of prisoners.
Separatists want political recognition
From the view of the separatists, the separation line is the largest point of contention. That's what Vladislav Deynego, a representative of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People's Republic, told Russian news agency "Interfax."
On September 19 in Minsk, the parties agreed on a 30-kilometer-wide "security zone" from which heavy weaponry was supposed to be withdrawn. But this only partially happened. The separatists even succeeded in extending their influence in the area. But Kyiv insists on the original separation line.
Another problem is the separatists' wish to be recognized by Kyiv as an "autonomous political unit," as Deynego put it. At first, Kyiv didn't want any contact with the separatists in order not to enhance their status. But the separatists and Moscow prevailed in Minsk. Representatives from Ukraine and the self-proclaimed "People's Republics" sat at one table.
Now, the separatists want even more: political recognition. That's also what Russia keeps pointing to. But for Kyiv, this point is not negotiable.
No improvement in sight
Experts in Ukraine doubt that the separatists truly want peace. "They are apparently trying to increase tensions," Oleksij Haran, a political science professor at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, who recently returned from eastern Ukraine, told DW.
"Russia currently doesn't want peace," Kyiv-based foreign policy expert Bohdan Yaremenko said. Experts and politicians in Russia say the same thing about Ukraine and the West. And the two sides don't seem to be heading for any sort of understanding in the near future.