A five-hour diplomatic menage-a-trois in the Kremlin with French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has ended without a breakthrough on the conflict in Ukraine.
Instead, the sides will work on a possible joint document that will also take into account the proposals of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The four leaders are expected to speak by phone on Sunday, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters crowding outside the door of the meeting room.
"Based on the proposals made by the French president and the German chancellor, joint work is being done to prepare a possible joint document about implementing the Minsk agreements," Peskov said.
Representatives for Kiev and the pro-Russia separatist republics in eastern Ukraine agreed on a 12-point plan in Minsk in September that began a ceasefire and laid down a demarcation line between the two sides. Nonetheless, fighting continued in several hotspots despite the nominal truce and has greatly intensified in the past three weeks.
Peskov said the talks were "constructive and substantive," but it's unclear what new ideas Merkel and Hollande brought to the table, if any. It's likely any new joint document seeking to implement the peace plan would have to make territorial concessions to the rebels.
Although the West and Russia have taken irreconcilable positions on Ukraine in the past, the fact that Merkel, who has spoken with Putin far more than any other Western leader, decided to travel to Moscow was taken as a sign that she had a major new card to play. She recently canceled a summit with Putin in Kazakhstan because she reportedly didn't feel it would be productive.
Yet no breakthrough was to be had over five hours of face-to-face talks, which were interrupted midway by dinner. Hollande and Merkel flew out of Moscow around midnight local time, immediately after the negotiations ended.
Presidential advisor Yury Ushakov said the sudden summit came together after Putin mentioned in a phone call that the leaders of France and Germany "are always welcome guests in Moscow." A more likely version, however, is that Putin started the dialogue with a letter this week seeking more territory and autonomy for the rebels, prompting a counter-proposal from Berlin and Paris.
Each leader was accompanied by advisors. Among the Russian contingent was general Andrei Kartopolov, who conducted a briefing this summer to argue that a Ukrainian jet shot down MH17, and "gray cardinal" Vladislav Surkov, a sanctioned Putin aide believed to play a key role in current Ukraine policy.
The Kremlin has made several de facto demands over the fate of Ukraine, where it is believed to be backing the rebels with arms and soldiers, even though it maintains that it is not a involved in the conflict. In the lead-up to the meeting, many had speculated that Merkel and Hollande were now ready to push Kiev to make concessions like greater autonomy for rebel-controlled areas greater, official status for the Russian language or even a guarantee to not join NATO.
Some in the West have said that amid a successful rebel offensive, Putin is no longer pushing for a peace plan, but a full-blown frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine such as those in the Russia-backed breakaway states of Transnistria and Abkhazia. Such a scenario would allow the Kremlin to continue to hold influence over the pro-Western government in Kiev.
Despite the slow progress at the talks, several factors are pushing the leaders toward the bargaining table. Russian-backed rebels have taken 200 square miles of territory since the Minsk peace plan was signed in September, even snatching the Donetsk airport from the grips of the famously resilient Ukrainian "cyborgs" defending it. Now they have the key rail junction of Debaltseve surrounded on three sides and have been hailing death onto the city's residents and defenders.
In addition, a report this week found that high-ranking American officials including NATO commander General Philip Breedlove no support supplying lethal assistance to Ukraine's military, and Secretary of State John Kerry said in Kiev on Thursday that President Barack Obama will decide soon on whether to send arms. Merkel opposes arming Ukraine. Such a move would likely require US military advisors on the ground and would by all accounts make the conflict, which has already claimed approximately 5,400 lives, even bloodier.
Interestingly, Latvia said it had scrambled NATO fighter jets on Friday to intercept a Russian IL-38 patrol aircraft over the Baltic Sea, just ahead of the three-way summit in Moscow. Encounters between NATO and Russian forces have risen over the past year as Moscow has flexed its military muscle.
Kremlin-linked analyst Sergei Markov told VICE News that Russia would respond to any US arms shipments to Ukraine by delivering more weapons to the rebels, slowly dragging America deeper into the conflict like had happened in the Vietnam War.
Vice President Joe Biden struck another non-conciliatory note in Brussels on Friday. "President Putin continues to call for new peace plans as his troops roll through the Ukrainian countryside, and he absolutely ignores every agreement his country has signed in the past," Biden said.
But Hollande and Merkel reportedly headed to Moscow without consulting Washington, suggesting that Europe may be growing tired of the instability in Ukraine and the US-led sanctions on Russia for which it has had to bear the economic cost. It is also growing tired of the cost of reviving Ukraine's economy, which has been dragged further into the dumps by the ongoing war. Kiev spends 5 to 7 million euros every day on the conflict, president Petro Poroshenko recently announced. The economy shrank by 6.7 percent in 2014 and needs another $15 billion on top of the $17 billion it already has from the International Monetary Fund just to avoid bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, Russia has faced its own economic problems, with low oil prices and sanctions continuing to bite. The official inflation rate reached 15 percent in January, with food prices rising by 20 percent.