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(L to R) France’s President Francois Hollande, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sit during a meeting on the sidelines of a Europe-Asia summit (ASEM) in Milan, Oct. 17, 2014.
Talks between Russia, Ukraine and European governments on Friday were “full of misunderstandings and disagreements,” the Kremlin said, undercutting more upbeat messages from leaders hoping for a breakthrough in the Ukraine crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shook hands with his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko at the start of a meeting with European leaders aimed at patching up a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and resolving a dispute over gas supplies.
The various leaders emerged an hour later telling reporters some progress had been made and promising further talks.
“It was good, it was positive,” a smiling Putin told reporters after the meeting, held on the margins of a summit of Asian and European leaders in Milan.
However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later poured cold water on hopes of any breakthrough, saying “certain participants” had taken an “absolutely biased, non-flexible, non-diplomatic” approach to Ukraine.
“The talks are indeed difficult, full of misunderstandings, disagreements, but they are nevertheless ongoing, the exchange of opinion is in progress,” he said.
A similar message emerged overnight after Putin met German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a formerly cordial relationship that has come under heavy strain from Moscow’s support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The meeting was reported by both sides to have made little progress, with the Kremlin saying “serious differences” remained in their analysis of the crisis.
Putin, Poroshenko, Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were due meet later in the day, their aides said.
The West has imposed sanctions on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea and its support for east Ukraine’s separatists.
The European leaders urged Russia to do more to end constant, deadly violations of a cease-fire that was agreed by Putin and Poroshenko last month in Minsk, saying Russia needed to fulfil its commitments.
Officials said local elections and the issue of using unmanned drone aircraft for surveillance of the borders between Russia and Ukraine were particular sticky points in the discussions, with Russia pushing to have its drones taking part alongside those offered by France and Germany.
The crisis in relations with Kiev has led Russia to cut gas supplies to Ukraine because of unpaid bills. The European Union fears this could threaten disruptions in the gas flow to the rest of the continent this winter, and is working hard to broker a deal.
Russia is Europe’s biggest gas supplier, accounting for around a third of demand, and the European Union gets about half of the Russian gas it uses via Ukraine.
The stand-off over pricing is the third in a decade between Moscow and Kiev, though this time tensions are higher because of the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters that Russia, Ukraine and EU officials would meet in Brussels to try to resolve the gas row.
Taking the lead in the diplomacy, Merkel saw Poroshenko on Thursday evening and then met Putin until well after midnight — an encounter that was significantly delayed because the Russian president arrived in Milan much later than expected.
Speaking off the record, a German source said Putin had not been in a “too constructive mood.”
Putin had warned on Thursday that Russia would reduce gas supplies to Europe if Ukraine took gas from the transit pipeline to cover its own needs, although he added that he was “hopeful” it would not come to that.
More than 3,600 people have died in eastern Ukraine since fighting broke out in mid-April when armed separatists declared they were setting up their own state.
Although Putin announced this week that Russian troops near the border with Ukraine would be pulled back, Western officials want to see clear evidence that Moscow is acting on this.
“Vladimir Putin said very clearly he doesn’t want a frozen conflict and doesn’t want a divided Ukraine. But if that’s the case, then Russia now needs to take the actions to put in place all that has been agreed,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“If those things don’t happen, then clearly the European Union, Britain included, must keep in place the sanctions and the pressure so we don’t have this sort of conflict in our continent.”
A woman holds the hand of Prime Minister of the rebels’ self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”, Alexander Zakharchenko during a ceremony to honour the World War II defenders of Donetsk from Nazi forces Sept. 8. Marko Djurica / Reuters
Allison Quinn reporting,
Infamous former rebel commander Igor Girkin, a Russian better known by his nom de guerre “Strelkov,” alienated his troops while fighting in eastern Ukraine through a ruthless disregard for the local area and unrealistically lofty goals for the battlefield, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said in an interview published Wednesday with Russian Reporter.
“He was a person who fought alongside us. But 90 percent of his troops did not support his views on how to conduct military activities,” Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the rebel republic, said in the interview.
Strelkov, a former colonel for Russia’s Federal Security Service shot to fame in mid-May when he began leading rebel fighters in Donetsk. He eventually took on the role of defense minister of the makeshift republic, but resigned from that position in mid-August and moved to Moscow. Upon his arrival, he declared Moscow the new front line in a battle being waged against President Vladimir Putin by the West.
Despite Strelkov’s prominence as one of the top fighters in the Ukraine conflict, however, Zakharchenko implied he was generally not regarded highly by his fellow fighters.
An example of Strelkov’s ruthlessness involved a plan to destroy nine-story buildings in Slovyansk, a strategy that Zakharchenko said triggered a “wild scandal.”
“For me, destroying nine-story buildings on the outskirts of Donetsk is insane,” Zakharchenko said, noting that Strelkov had proposed such a plan during a battle there.
In response to the interviewer’s question on whether Strelkov had wanted to destroy buildings due to his own dabbling in historical military re-enactments — a hobby that many have said motivated his activities in Ukraine — Zakharchenko said Strelkov simply viewed war differently.
“In his opinion, it would have been more convenient to defend ourselves from among ruins. Because he doesn’t live here,” Zakharchenko said, adding that Strelkov had focused on “tactical moves aimed at strikes and fierce defense” that weren’t suitable to the situation in Ukraine.
For what Strelkov wanted to do, he said, “we would have needed a minimum of 20,000 fighters. But since he only had 6,000, we had to arrange it differently.”
While Strelkov’s fellow fighters respected him, Zakharchenko said, “we would have done things differently when it came to trying to resolve certain issues at the expense of the lives of our fellow countrymen.”
Signs of a rift between pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine were apparent throughout the summer, with several Russian commanders resigning. In August, documents surfaced purportedly showing orders given by Strelkov to execute his own fighters for looting, Reuters reported at the time.
Strelkov stepped down around the time reports broke of the alleged execution orders, though his representatives said he was quitting because he had found a new job.
Asian Desk reporting,
President Vladimir Putin on Thursday dismissed concerns that Russia’s development was heading in the wrong direction as officials sounded the alarm over the economic outlook. Putin spoke at an investor forum after Russia’s economy minister said a combination of high inflation and low growth was “explosive” and the head of the country’s largest bank warned Russia could repeat the fate of the Soviet Union.
Putin chose to make light of the doom-and-gloom predictions, pledging Russia would remain an investor-friendly economy and ruling out capital controls or any major revision of privatisations.
Speaking at the annual “Russia Calling” investment forum, Putin jokingly suggested that investors should simply watch his facial expressions to gauge the state of the economy and government policies.
“I guess I should just smile sometimes to show the Devil is not so black as he is painted — forgive me, Lord — or knit my brow to show that we won’t permit something,” he said.
“We sincerely want to build a strong, prosperous, free country open to the world.”
Officials are considering how to mitigate the negative effects of the confrontation with the West over Ukraine which include pressure on the ruble, which has lost a fifth of its value against the dollar since the start of the year.
Russia responded to Western sanctions by ordering an embargo on EU and US food and threatened to ban other imports.
Sanctions coupled with the prosecution of billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov have undermined investor confidence and delivered a blow to economy, which is on the brink of recession.
Some Western companies are cutting back their presence or choosing to leave the country altogether.
Putin spoke after his economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev warned that a combination of 8.0 percent inflation and economic growth below 1.0 percent was a “crass and explosive situation.”
Russia’s RTS stock index plunged below 1,100 points on Thursday for the first time since March.
- ‘Gulags don’t motivate people’ -The chief executive of Russia’s largest bank Sberbank, Herman Gref, launched an unusually open critique, warning Russia could repeat the fate of the USSR.
Gref pilloried a state-led model of economic development, pointing to a lack of competition and poor governance.
“Why did the Soviet Union break up?” said Gref, a former economy minister.
“There is one key reason which determined the rest: it’s mind-boggling incompetence of the Soviet leadership. They did not respect the laws of economic development”.
“We cannot allow the same situation,” he said, citing a book by the architect of Russia’s market reforms, Yegor Gaidar, “Collapse of an Empire.”
Gref seemed to question the Kremlin’s policies, including the ban on imports, saying: “I beg your pardon but we import nearly everything.”
He also said a lack of competition meant that even if the ruble rebounded, consumer prices would not go down.
“Half of our economy is monopolised,” he said.
Gref appeared to target the state’s increasingly repressive policies.
“You cannot motivate people through the Gulag — like in the Soviet Union,” he said, referring to Stalin’s system of forced labour camps.
“People cannot make creative products when they don’t understand the current economic policies and business climate.”
- ‘Close to the abyss’ -
The IMF warned this week that Russia’s “economic outlook appears bleak” with growth forecast at just 0.2 percent this year and 0.5 percent in 2015, although it noted the country has “substantial buffers” such as large reserves.
Chris Weafer, senior partner at Macro Advisory, said the remarks by Gref and Ulyukayev had acted as a “reality check.”
Economist Andrei Yakovlev said the officials’ grim assessments showed they were losing influence and noted they had chosen to air their views in public.
“Before, these discussions also took place, but not in public,” the director of the Institute for Industrial and Market Studies at the Higher School of Economics, told AFP.
“We are close to the edge of the abyss and are moving ever closer towards it.”
Anvar Amirov, an analyst at the European Public Policy Advisers, added that Putin had delivered a political speech aimed at his supporters — and not at investors.
“If he says that things are bad then that begs the question: what have you been doing all these years?”
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a luncheon hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon during the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Wednesday. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday the legitimacy of U.S. air strikes against Islamic State are in doubt because of the lack of approval from its ally Syria, where some of the strikes are being carried out, and the United Nations.
“There is doubt over the legitimacy of the strikes as such actions can only be carried out with the approval of the United Nations and the unequivocal permission of the authorities of the country where they are taking place, which in this case is the government in Damascus,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Russia has said air strikes against the radical Sunni group that has taken over wide swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria must be agreed with Damascus to avoid “fueling tensions.”
Moscow has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against rebels and sees his survival as a major foreign policy success. It now wants to see the West implicitly acknowledging his legitimacy by dealing with him directly.
Russia has not responded publicly to U.S. calls to build an international coalition to destroy Islamic State.
A Kremlin spokesman said President Vladimir Putin had discussed possible cooperation on countering Islamic State with “partners” as long as it was within the framework of international law.