Kerry holds talks in Ukraine amid bid by European partners to quell fighting

KIEV, Ukraine — Diplomats and leaders from Europe and the United States converged in the Ukrainian capital Thursday in an effort to quell an growing offensive by pro-Russian separatists that has left civilians trapped by heavy shelling.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with Ukraine’s president and prime minister, bearing a modest package of humanitarian aid, but stopping short of the expanding military assistance sought by Ukraine.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande announced they would fly to Kiev later in the day, and head to Moscow on Friday in an attempt to move ahead a peace bid.


The efforts reflect deepening alarm in the West that the conflict in eastern Ukraine could be moving into a new stage as a cease-fire reached late last year collapses.


Fighting broke out last year amid political chaos pitting pro-Moscow factions against leaders in Kiev seeking greater ties with the West. The battles also have strained ties between the West and Russia, which is accused of aiding the separatists with weapons and troops.


Moscow insists it has no troops in the country, and says any Russians with the rebels are independent volunteers.


Some Western officials fear the latest offensive could set the stage for a declaration of a breakaway state in eastern Ukraine — a country that already has lost Crimea to Russia and now is under threat of being further splintered.


Recent fighting has left heavy civilian casualties in the eastern port city ofMariupol and the railroad junction of Debaltseve, Ukrainian officials said.


“So we have a Russian government that is talking the talk of cease-fire, talking the talk of peace, even as it fuels this conflict,” said a senior State Department official traveling with Kerry, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.


“So the question is: If the governments of Ukraine, of the United States, or Europe, are appealing now for a new sit-down, will the Kremlin spurn that or will they sit down? And will they push their proxies to do the same?”

Kerry’s visit was planned months ago. But the escalating fighting now dominates the talks.


The Obama administration so far has limited any assistance to Ukraine. Much of it has been humanitarian, though it has provided some military equipment like night vision goggles.


But in recent days, there has been growing clamor in Congress and within the administration to start providing Ukraine with lethal military equipment such as weapons and anti-tank systems.


“The risk is we’re doing too little, not doing too much,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Ca.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, who is gathering signatures on a letter urging the administration to send Ukraine defensive equipment like anti-armor missiles.


“It’s also a risk that if we show too little resolve we will invite further violence in Ukraine and invite Russia to use this kind of expansionist policy vis a vis other nations in the region. At this point, we’ve given the Russians plenty of off ramps, and they haven’t shown any willingness to take them.”


There was no sign that any change of mind was imminent, however.


Kerry announced on his arrival that the United States would provide an additional $16 million in humanitarian aid to buy blankets, repair homes, obtain wheelchairs and counseling for the victims of ongoing war in Ukraine. There was no mention of defensive military equipment.


State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki has said repeatedly that the policy over lethal weapons has not changed, though she has pointedly noted that all options are under discussion.


Such a move would almost certainly invite a reaction from Moscow, which is otherwise aligned with Washington on issues such as the Iran nuclear talks and the need to stop Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.


“Even if we try to do this covertly, there’s a risk that it will boomerang in other areas of the U.S.-Russia relationship,” said Andrew C. Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Ukraine issue is so existential, so tied up in Putin’s domestic position, it’s difficult to prevent a very fundamental dispute over Ukraine from bleeding over into other issues.”


Merkel’s visit to Moscow will be closely watched. A native of the former East Germany, she speaks fluent Russian and is considered the European leader most likely to get through to Putin and present a countering narrative to the Russian version that it is the Ukrainians who are the aggressors.


“Given the escalation of violence in the past days, the chancellor and President Hollande are intensifying their months-long efforts for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine,” said Merkel’s spokesman, Steffan Seibert.

Source: Washington Post