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Moscow said talks with Ukrainian, German and French officials were "not simple." But despite their differences, they backed a 2014 cease-fire in eastern Ukraine even as troops ready for war on both sides of the border.
A service member of the Ukrainian armed forces walks at combat positions near the line of separation from Russian-backed rebels in the Donetsk region
With tensions spiraling in Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Russia held talks Wednesday at the Elysee Palace in Paris alongside representatives from Germany and France under the Normandy format.
It is the first time such talks — which took place in an advisory capacity — were held since 2019. It is also the first time since Moscow's latest military build-up began on Ukraine's border.
The move has stoked fears of a much wider incursion into Ukraine beyond the industrial eastern region known as Donbass, which is controlled by Russia-backed separatists.
Ahead of the talks, Andriy Yermak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said that the meeting was a "strong signal of readiness for a peaceful settlement."
As the talks were underway in Paris, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the French Senate, "We are taking all the necessary initiatives to trigger a de-escalation process."
The meeting lasted for more the eight hours.
Kremlin envoy Dmitry Kozak said the talks were "not simple," but there was one common ground. He said that "despite all the differences in interpretations, we agreed that the cease-fire (in eastern Ukraine) must be maintained by all the parties in line with the accords."
Kozak was referring to the Minsk agreement, which was signed under the Normandy format, which got its name after representatives from the four nations met during the 2014 D-Day celebrations in Normandy, France.
The envoys "support unconditional respect for the cease-fire and full adherence to the cease-fire strengthening measures of July 22, 2020, regardless of differences on other issues relating to the implementation of the Minsk agreements," the Elysee said.
Russia and Ukraine signed the Minsk agreements in 2014 and 2015. Although major combat came to an end after the agreement, some periodic clashes still occurred.
Over the years, both Russia and Ukraine have repeatedly accused the other of violating the cease-fire that sought to defuse conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists.
The Elysee said the parties agreed to meet for further dialogue in two weeks in Berlin.
"We hope our colleagues have understood our arguments and that in two weeks we will achieve results," Kozak said.
Gustav Gressel, a security policy expert from the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW that it is unclear what impact the diplomatic process will have on the situation along the Russia-Ukraine border.
"The threats against Ukraine have been pretty consistent," he told DW. "The willingness to use military force have been underlined by Putin himself, by [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov himself, with the same wording consistently over the last three months. I think we should take that seriously."
Wednesday's mid-day meeting was set to focus on humanitarian efforts and the possibility of formal talks on the status of the Donbass region. Russia-backed separatists control the territory, though Moscow denies any connection to the proxy forces.
Since last November, the US and Europe have publicly asserted there is intelligence concerning a Russian military build-up encircling Ukraine and a force that now amounts to over 100,000 troops stationed on the country's borders.
A map indicating the positions of Russian troops near Ukraine
The intelligence prompted concerns that Russia plans to escalate the conflict in Donbass and seize a greater share of Ukrainian territory after it had annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Analysts, however, debate what shape and contour a new military effort might take as well as the costs to both Ukraine and Russia.
At the beginning of January, Germany and France attempted trilateral talks with representatives of both nations shuttling between Kyiv and Moscow, but without the four parties sitting down altogether at once.
The US Embassy in Ukraine on Wednesday urged Americans to consider leaving the country amid the threat of Russian military action.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Wednesday that "we certainly see every indication" that Russian President Vladimir Putin will "use military force sometime perhaps (between) now and the middle of February."
The US and NATO delivered written responses to Russia's demands, which include a rollback of US troops from countries that joined the military alliance since 1997, all of which previously were either occupied by or satellites of the Soviet Union. The US and NATO have said this, and many other Russian demands are not possible, and called for further dialogue instead.
Russia on Wednesday threatened "retaliatory measures" if its security demands were not met.
On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden said Washington is prepared to hit Russian President Vladimir Putin with personal sanctions.
On Monday, the Pentagon placed 8,500 troops on heightened alert to potentially be deployed to the countries on NATO's eastern flank, so the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as well as Poland, Bulgaria and Romania — all nations that border Russia or the Black Sea.
The United States has also opened talks with energy-producing nations about diverting supplies to Europe should Russia cut gas supplies.
The eastern Donbass has been occupied along with Crimea since 2014, following months-long protests in the central Kyiv square known as Maidan. Those protests culminated in the deaths of dozens of Ukrainians who were shot and killed by the country's security forces, which led to the former Russian-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych fleeing to Rostov-on-Don in Russia.
The UN reports more than 14,000 deaths in the nearly eight-year-old conflict.
fb, ab, ar, wd/sms (AFP, dpa)