KIEV, Jan 8- Ukraine’s prime minister meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday to press her to keep up the economic pressure on Russia at joint crisis talks with Vladimir Putin next week.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s high stakes trip to the European Union’s biggest nation comes with the 28-nation bloc — teetering on the verge of another recession — mulling an easing of financial restrictions on Russia that have hurt both sides.
Recent comments from members of Merkel’s coalition and French President Francois Hollande suggest the two capitals are starting to view the past two months’ letup in Ukrainian fighting as justification for mending their Moscow ties.
And even such Kremlin wary states as ex Soviet Latvia have signalled a more receptive approach to Putin.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said on Wednesday that he saw “signals there is a certain kind of willingness on the Russian side to work more closely” with the European Union.
“If (the) situation improves in eastern Ukraine, we would certainly support a softening of sanction,” Rinkevics said.
Such talk has frightened the staunchly pro-Western Ukrainian leaders who rose to power in the wake of a bloody popular uprising that toppled a Putin-backed president in February.
Yatsenyuk and President Petro Poroshenko accuse Putin of masterminding the pro-Kremlin revolt that engulfed Ukraine’s border regions with Russia six weeks later.
The nine month separatist mutiny has now killed 4,700 people and left Ukraine — stripped of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea by Russia in March — in danger of also losing its industrial heartland and resource base.
Yatsenyuk’s office said ahead of the visit that he would discuss “measures to fight Russia’s aggression” with Merkel.
It also pointed out that Ukraine’s finances were in such dire trouble that the delegation was taking a regular flight to Berlin whose costs and other expenses were “being covered by the hosts”.
– Astana summit –
The January 15 talks between Poroshenko and Putin in the Kazakh capital Astana will include both Merkel and Hollande — the two main mediators in Europe’s worst conflict since the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Merkel held a string of discussions with Putin throughout the standoff that appear to have convinced her the Kremlin had no desire to drop its aggressive and diplomatically isolating approach to Ukraine.
But German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel warned in a newspaper interview published on Sunday that further economic reprisals against Russia could plunge the nuclear superpower into chaos and make life more dangerous for Europe.
“The goal was never to push Russia politically and economically into chaos,” Gabriel told the Bild am Sonntag.
“Whoever wants that will provoke a much more dangerous situation for all of us in Europe.”
Gabriel heads the opposition Social Democratic Party that Merkel was forced into courting in order to form a government.
Berlin’s political left has long harboured warmer relations with Moscow and been putting increasing political pressure on Merkel as German’s economy slows.
Hollande for his part has been forced to delay the delivery of two warships to Russia that were built in France under a contract negotiated by then-president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The deal may end up forcing Paris to pay hundreds of millions of euros in damages and cost local construction jobs.
Hollande stressed on Monday that he was heading to Astana with firm resolve to make a breakthrough in the conflict.
“I think the sanctions must stop now. They must be lifted if there is progress. If there is no progress, the sanctions will remain,” he told France Inter radio.
Putin denies interfering in Ukraine and brands the punitive steps as a sign of the European Union’s failure to stand up to an increasingly anti Russian White House.
But Yatsenyuk on Thursday once again accused the veteran Kremlin leader of “starting this aggressive military operation” against Ukraine.
His government hopes the economic sanctions — due to come up for review at the end of June — might still be extended because they require a unanimous vote from all 28 EU members to either lift or ease.
Jittery ex-Soviet satellites such as Poland have so far given no indication that they are ready to accept Putin’s arguments.