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As Ukraine Escalation Fears Rise, A Flurry Of Diplomacy

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko welcomes servicemen released from captivity in the Donetsk region during a meeting in Kyiv on August 15.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko welcomes servicemen released from captivity in the Donetsk region during a meeting in Kyiv on August 15.

A tense 24 hours that saw claims of direct military conflict between Ukraine and Russia sparked a burst of diplomatic scrambling as top officials moved to head off further escalation of the crisis.

After Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that Ukrainian forces had partially destroyed a Russian military column that had entered Ukraine’s territory, his foreign minister announced he would meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on August 17.

"Whether the table will be round or square, it is necessary to talk," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin tweeted on August 15.

The meeting, to be held in Berlin, will be the first between Klimkin and Sergei Lavrov since they met in the German capital in a similar format on July 2. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are set to join them in the talks.

The announcement came amid the disputed circumstances on the Ukrainian-Russian border, which Ukraine and NATO claim Russian military vehicles crossed under the cover of nightfall on August 14. Russia dismissed the assertion as “some kind of fantasy.”

As the two sides traded accusations, the chiefs of staff for Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi on August 15, the Kremlin said in a statement.

The two officials, longtime Putin confidant Sergei Ivanov and Borys Lozhkin from the Ukrainian side, "discussed a wide range of issues," including the format of the planned Berlin talks, the Kremlin said.

Kyiv and Moscow were in contact throughout the day with European and U.S. officials as well regarding the heightened tension in the standoff.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel discussed the crisis by telephone, a conversation the Russian Defense Ministry described as “business-like and constructive.”

Shoigu told Hagel that Russia was "seriously concerned" about what it sees as NATO's increased activity near Russia’s border and that a cease-fire is necessary to allow humanitarian aid into eastern Ukraine, RIA Novosti reported.

Shoigu "guaranteed" that no Russian military personnel would be involved in the Russian convoy that Moscow claims is carrying humanitarian assistance and which is currently stalled at the Ukrainian border, the Pentagon said in a statement.

The Russian minister added that the convoy would not be used as a pretext for a Russian invasion into Ukraine, the Pentagon said.

Earlier in the day, Poroshenko told British Prime Minister David Cameron in a telephone call that Ukraine’s military had destroyed "a significant part of the equipment" of a Russian armored column that crossed the border. No independent confirmation of this assertion has emerged.

Poroshenko doubled down on the accusation in a tweet:

The British Foreign Office summoned Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Yakovenko for an explanation of the reports. "If true, such an incursion would be an unacceptable violation of international law and of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty," the Foreign Office said in a statement.

White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said that the United States could not confirm Ukraine's claim and was working to gather more information.

Exit Strategy?

It was not immediately clear what, if any, concrete steps may be discussed at the planned August 17 four-way talks in Berlin. But analysts said the surge in diplomatic activity suggests Russia may be seeking an opportunity to disengage from the conflict -- but only on its terms.

Putin is “probably unwilling to walk away from his Ukrainian adventure without something he can call a win,” says Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who specializes in post-Soviet security issues.

But Putin and the Russian elite are “well aware of the potential risks of further escalation,” he adds. "I think the Russians are desperate to be offered some kind of a deal."

Matthew Rojansky, head of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute in Washington, concurs that Russia appears open to a deal but says the Berlin meeting is unlikely to yield significant steps toward a resolution of the conflict.

A negotiated resolution with Russia will only be possible if it allows Putin to protect his domestic political support and his clout in the region, Rojansky says.
“Within that framework I think [the Russians] are still open to a deal that allows them to walk away with this. But they have to walk away with those two things basically fully intact."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.