German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has underlined Berlin's support for Kyiv on his first visit to the front line in eastern Ukraine. He also announced a new round of peace talks aimed at ending the conflict there.
Mariupol is a city of almost half-a-million people in the shadow of the front line. Just 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the east, the so-called contact line divides Ukrainian government troops from pro-Russian separatists. Shelling is almost a daily occurrence and civilian deaths are no rarity. Twenty-seven civilians have been killed since the beginning of the year.
It was Mariupol that German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas chose to visit on his first trip to the Donbass region. Visiting an abandoned village near the front line, Maas criticized waning international attention being paid to the conflict. "We in Germany can't pretend that this isn't happening," he said.
More than three years on from the Minsk Agreements and the front line has barely moved. A workable ceasefire has proved elusive. Without an enduring agreement to end the fighting, all the other steps towards a political resolution envisioned by the Minsk Agreement are beyond reach.
Instead, OSCE monitors are left to document ceasefire violations on both sides. Just 600 monitors patrol more the more than 400 kilometers of front line and are frequently denied access. Ukrainian government troops and separatists trade the blame over who started shooting first. Authorities in Kyiv, with some Western support, see a solution in an armed UN peacekeeping mission, arguing that they would be able enforce compliance with a ceasefire, rather than just record infringements, thus opening the way for progress towards a political solution.
Maas told reporters in Mariupol that he would invite the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia and France to Berlin on June 11 as part of the so-called Normandy format. A UN mission for eastern Ukraine would be top of the agenda. The idea is not new, but has so far been scuppered by disagreement over its remit. Ukraine, supported by France and Germany, insists peacekeepers should be deployed across the entirety of separatist-held territory, including Ukraine's eastern border with Russia.
Moscow in turn has consistently called for a smaller scale mission, limited to providing security for OSCE monitors along the current contact line. Authorities in Kyiv fear that would entrench the current line of control as a de-facto border. So far there is little indication that the Kremlin has changed its mind.
Maas' visit comes during a difficult time for relations between Germany and Ukraine. Berlin and Kyiv are at loggerheads over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, due to be completed by the end of 2019. It will link Russia and Germany through the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine's existing gas transport system. Kyiv is fiercely opposed to the plans, concerned that Russia could escalate hostilities in Ukraine if it no longer relies on Ukraine's pipelines to supply its Western European gas customers. Berlin's plans for a compromise deal that would see the Russian state gas giant Gazprom commit to continued shipments through Ukraine have so far met with little enthusiasm in Kyiv.
Just a day before Maas' arrival in Kyiv, Ukraine's security services sent shockwaves around the world when they announced that Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko had in fact not been murdered, as was previously reported. Instead, Babchenko's "death" had been staged as part of a plot to catch individuals planning his killing with Russian backing. Foreign Minister Maas was one of many international voices to condemn Babchenko's "murder." Maas criticized the deception saying, "many will struggle to understand the operation" and calling for the Ukrainian authorities to review their conduct.
Maas underlines Germany's support
But in spite of those irritants, Maas was keen to stress Germany's continued support for Ukraine. "We will not leave you alone when it comes to resolving the conflict here in the east," he said. Following Moscow's illegal annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Donbass, Maas said that Germany had always "made it clear to Russia that we stand with Ukraine on these issues and that will not change."
But it wasn't all good news for Maas' Ukrainian counterpart and host, Pavlo Klimkin, as news came in from Rome that a new Italian government coalition had been formed. Both the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and right-wing anti-immigrant party The League oppose European Union sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. With those sanctions up for renewal in the coming weeks, an Italian veto would be enough to see them scrapped. It's hard to see why Moscow would make any concessions at the June 11 meeting if the EU looks likely to ease sanctions pressure anyway, without asking for anything in return.