FRENCH president Francois Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel were last night locked in talks with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss a peace plan aimed at ending the fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels.
The two leaders took a peace proposal to Moscow crafted on Thursday in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, but details of the discussions in the Russian capital were not released.
The move has sparked fears of a division within the western alliance, with Britain and the United States apparently sidelined by the Franco-German initiative.
Yesterday, Downing Street was forced to defend David Cameron’s notable absence from the meeting, insisting Britain was playing an “active role” in Europe’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.
The Prime Minister also faced accusations he had become a “diplomatic irrelevance” by former top Nato commander General Sir Richard Shirreff, who said the UK should be playing a major role in the efforts to resolve the crisis amid fears that it could lead to an all-out European war.
He said: “This is the most serious crisis to have faced Europe arguably since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. There is a threat of total war.
“The UK is a major Nato member, it is a major EU member, it is a member of the UN Security Council, and it is unfortunate that the weight that the British Prime Minister could bring to efforts to resolve this crisis appear to be absent.”
No10 sought to play down suggestions of a diplomatic rift, insisting that the visit was part of the so-called Normandy Group process, which began during last year’s D-Day commemorations, in which France and Germany have taken the lead.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “I don’t think that anyone sat around the council table in Brussels at the extraordinary foreign affairs council last week thought that Britain was playing an irrelevant role when we were pushing hard for a unanimous, strong and united message on the situation in Russia and Ukraine, and leading the way on further work on sanctions.”
She said that Britain had been involved in discussions last year on the establishment of the Normandy Group and had agreed the format, which has seen France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine engage in discussions at foreign minister and leader level on several occasions over the past eight months.
Speaking before leaving Germany, Mrs Merkel said she was travelling in the “interests of peace and maintaining Europe’s peaceful order”.
“The French president and I have decided to do something against this escalation and to use all our power with direct visits to Kiev and to Moscow today to stop the bloodshed as soon as possible and to fill the Minsk [ceasefire] agreement with life.”
She added: “It is totally open as to whether we will, with these talks, succeed in achieving a ceasefire. We don’t know if that will be achieved today, if perhaps further talks will be needed. We can only do what we can to resolve this conflict and especially to end the bloodshed.”
The German and French leaders will try to gain Moscow’s accord on peace proposals formed during their visit to Kiev, although what they are remains unclear. Ukraine has, however, said it will not sign any deal that would compromise the geographic integrity of the country, and it has reiterated calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Ukrainian soil.
Kiev and the West have accused Moscow of both arming the rebels and deploying combat troops in Ukraine to destabilise the country. Moscow has rebuffed such claims and describes the conflict as a “civil war”.
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