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European Leaders Hope To Push Putin Toward Ceasefire In Ukraine

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The leaders of France and Germany have wrapped up talks with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. They discussed a ceasefire plan for eastern Ukraine. The war in that region has been raging with new ferocity over the past few weeks as Russian-backed militias capture more territory from Ukrainian government troops. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow that the two sides may be talking at cross purposes.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande came to today's meeting after some five hours of talks yesterday in Kiev. They met with Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, to discuss a nine-page peace proposal offered by Russia's leader.

Before she left for Moscow, Merkel wasn't projecting high expectations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German) Wir koennen nur das tun was in unserer Kraft steht. Die Dinge...

FLINTOFF: We can only do our best, she said. We'll do everything in our power to find a solution to the conflict and specifically to end the bloodshed. Significantly, Merkel said that she and Hollande would try to revive the Minsk Agreement. That's the cease-fire deal that was signed in September by Russia, Ukraine, the Russian-backed militias and the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. It called for an immediate truce, permanent monitoring of the border between Ukraine and Russia and the withdrawal of all illegal armed groups. And the agreement also promised some form of special political status for the two regions that had claimed independence.

Analyst Nikolai Petrov says there are indications that Russia's plan may go quite a bit further than that.

NIKOLAI PETROV: One is declaration that Ukraine will keep being neutral and will not join NATO, and another is federalization of Ukraine, and a kind of autonomy for eastern Ukrainian regions.

FLINTOFF: Petrov is a political analyst and professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. The United States and NATO say the major armed group in eastern Ukraine today is the Russian army, a charge that Russia vehemently denies. Vice President Joe Biden pressed that point during a visit to Brussels.

JOE BIDEN: This is a moment where the United States and Europe must stand together - stand firm. Russia can not be allowed to redraw the map of Europe, because that’s exactly what they are doing.

FLINTOFF: There may have been an added urgency in Biden’s call for Western unity, because the Putin proposal was sent only to France and Germany, and not to the United States. Some observers saw it as a Russian effort to drive a wedge between the Western allies. Nikolai Petrov says Putin and his inner circle may have little incentive to make a deal that would ensure stability in the region, because continued conflict will keep Ukraine weak.

PETROV: The Kremlin is interested somehow in keeping control of managed conflict, not to let Ukrainian authorities make any decisions without agreeing with Moscow.

FLINTOFF: When the French and German leaders left their meeting with President Putin today, they gave little sign that progress had been made. A German government spokesman issued a statement saying that Merkel and Hollande had a constructive and substantial exchange of views with the Russian president. He said the Europeans would work on a joint document that would incorporate the views of the Russian and Ukrainian presidents, but he didn’t say when or how the fighting would stop. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.