Ukraine-Russia talks seek to defuse crisis amid agreement on aid

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KIEV, Ukraine  -- Foreign ministers from Ukraine and Russia will meet today in Berlin after officials agreed on a plan that would allow the Red Cross to accompany a Russian aid convoy stuck near the two countries’ border.

Ukraine’s Pavlo Klimkin and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov will hold talks with their German and French counterparts to ease tensions after Ukraine officials said Friday that their troops had destroyed part of an armored convoy from Russia. Today’s meeting may be a first step toward a new peace summit, French President Francois Hollande’s office said in a statement.

European leaders are pushing to halt the conflict that has fractured Ukraine since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in March, touching off a wave off sanctions that have hurt trade and threatened to send Russian  President Vladimir Putin’s economy into recession. Finnish President Sauli Niinistoe conferred with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev Saturday yesterday, and said he carried with him a message from Mr. Putin, with whom he had met the day before.

“A quick resolution of the crisis remains unlikely,” Otilia Dhand, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London who specializes in eastern Europe, said by e-mail. “The new round of talks in Berlin might at best bring a slight detente and potentially avert a further escalation over the next days.”

In the accord reached Saturday, Ukrainian officials agreed to accept humanitarian aid from Russia that will be delivered to the nation’s southeastern region under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross. That area has been controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

About 275 trucks loaded with the aid have been idled some 25 miles from the border in Russia’s Rostov region. Ukrainian officials have been concerned the relief mission was a guise for funneling weapons to the insurgents.

Under the agreement, the trucks will proceed through a border checkpoint and the ICRC will be responsible for examining and distributing the aid. Some security details remained to be worked out.

The two sides had been sparring over claims by Ukraine on Aug. 15 that its troops attacked a military column from Russia that had crossed the border. Officials in Moscow denied that the incident occurred.

Fighting continued along the border Saturday, prompting 17 Ukrainian servicemen to flee into Russia unarmed to avoid being killed, state-run news service RIA Novosti reported, citing a spokesman for the Federal Security Service’s border guard.

Separatists said at least five people were killed because of fighting in Donetsk and nearby towns, RIA Novosti reported. Three Ukrainian troops have been killed in the recent fighting and 13 wounded, Andriy Lysenko, a military spokesman, told reporters in Kiev.

“The situation on the Ukrainian-Russian border in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions remains difficult,” Mr. Lysenko said. He repeated Ukraine’s assertion that it destroyed a significant part of a military convoy that entered from Russia.

No military column from Russia entered Ukraine, said Major General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, according to RIA Novosti. Ukraine’s comments are based on “fantasies,” and shouldn’t be the “subject of serious discussion,” he was cited as saying on Aug. 15.

Mr. Poroshenko spoke Saturday by phone with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, and according to a White House statement, the two “agreed that Russia’s sending military columns across the border into Ukraine and its continued provision of advanced weapons to the separatists was inconsistent with any desire to improve the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine.”

Russia also has denied that it’s supplying weapons to the rebels.

The conflict is coming to a head as Ukrainian government forces push to dislodge the insurgents from their strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk. Ukraine has information that the insurgents may be trying to leave the conflict zone by Aug. 18, according to Mr. Lysenko, the military spokesman. He declined to elaborate.

The government in Kiev has for months said that rebels in its easternmost regions are getting support from Russia, including artillery fire.

European Union governments have warned Mr. Putin they’re ready to expand sanctions if the conflict worsens. Putin told Finland’s Niinistoe during their Aug. 15 meeting that Russia doesn’t want to see an escalating war of sanctions.

Mr. Niinistoe’s meeting with Mr. Poroshenko yesterday lasted about three hours. In comments to reporters after arriving at Helsinki-Vantaa airport, he declined to elaborate on the message he relayed from Mr.  Putin.

“A cease-fire is the primary goal,” he said. “That requires Russia to stop transporting armaments to Ukraine.”

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