Putin, Hollande and Merkel to Discuss Ukraine at G-20 in China

(Bloomberg) -- Russia said President Vladimir Putin will hold talks on the conflict in Ukraine with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French leader Francois Hollande at the Group of 20 summit in China, after the biggest diplomatic showdown since a peace deal was signed 18 months ago.

The three leaders agreed to meet on the sidelines of the Sept. 4-5 summit after phone talks Tuesday on “prospects for the continuation of the Minsk” peace accords to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Putin told Merkel and Hollande that attempted attacks in Crimea by Ukrainian “saboteurs” were “detrimental” to cooperation under the so-called Normandy format of talks that involve Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine, according to the statement.

Prospects for a meeting appeared to have been scuppered by soaring tensions in the region that prompted Putin to say it would be “pointless” to discuss the cease-fire in Ukraine at the G-20. He accused Ukraine this month of “terror” tactics in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, after the Russian Federal Security Service said that Ukrainian agents had killed two servicemen in the peninsula.

Ukraine said the incident never happened, while the European Union and the U.S. also cast doubt on the credibility of the Russian allegation. President Petro Poroshenko put the Ukrainian military on high alert last week, saying that “we don’t rule out a full-scale Russian invasion” amid a spike in violence in eastern Ukraine that raised fears the simmering conflict that’s killed almost 10,000 people since April 2014 will erupt again. Ukraine accuses Russia of stoking the separatist war, while Putin’s denied military involvement.

‘Strong Army’

Poroshenko’s spokesman Svyatoslav Tsegolko didn’t immediately respond to phone calls seeking comment on the announcement of talks at the G-20.

Putin said during a visit to Crimea on Friday that Ukraine “doesn’t want to, or can’t for whatever reason, fulfill” its commitments under the February 2015 peace accords signed in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. He calmed nerves by saying Russia wouldn’t “restrict” diplomatic relations with Ukraine.

There’s a need to “further de-escalate the situation, including the withdrawal of forces and the establishment of demilitarized zones” in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin said in its statement.

Hollande is concerned by the growing number of cease-fire violations reported in eastern Ukraine, a statement from his office said. He called for a new four-way meeting between France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine to try to resolve the crisis.

Poroshenko praised advances in his military’s readiness while visiting troops Tuesday, saying the army is better trained and equipped than when fighting first broke out. Soldiers are ready to stop “the enemy” on the line of contact with rebels if required, he said.

While diplomacy will certainly “play its part,” negotiations to resolve the conflict can’t be effective without a “strong army,” Poroshenko said.

The EU and the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea and for its role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Merkel said last week that she’d be “the first to want to lift the sanctions,” though “unfortunately, we haven’t seen implementation of the Minsk accord yet.”