With Ukraine's election looming, German minister visits to spur national dialogue

The minister's visit indicates Germany and the West's increasing concern over Ukraine after controversial referendums on independence held Sunday in the country's east.

Sergei Chuzavkov/AP
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (l.) shakes hands with acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov during a meeting in Kiev, Ukraine, today. Mr. Steinmeier flew to Ukraine Tuesday to help start talks between the Ukrainian government and its foes following the declaration of independence by two eastern region.

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On the heels of eastern Ukraine's independence referendums, Germany’s foreign minister arrived in Ukraine today in an attempt to jump-start talks between Kiev and pro-Russian separatists ahead of a presidential election later this month.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that his visit is focused on "building bridges between the different camps" ahead of the upcoming election, reports the Financial Times. He wants to build support for reconciliation talks backed by the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (which includes Russia, Ukraine, and the US) that could help defuse the crisis. 

Shortly after landing in Kiev, Mr Steinmeier emphasised “the decisive role” of the presidential elections, which are now less than two weeks away and called for “national dialogue” around the proposed round table.

He also called for groups with weapons to disarm and vacate occupied public buildings, a message directed not only at the pro-Russian protesters but at pro-Ukrainian groups too.

As the European Union's most powerful economy and the bloc's de facto leader, Germany holds major influence in Russia. But any attempt to use sanctions to force Russia to shift its policies on Ukraine could also put Germany's economy at risk. As such, Germany has been reticent to act more forcefully on Ukraine, and has opted for diplomacy instead.

Mr. Steinmeier's visit comes on the heels of the controversial weekend referendums in eastern Ukraine that left separatist leaders requesting unification with Russia, effectively upping the ante in Ukraine's crisis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has guaranteed his support for Ukraine's presidential vote later this month, though the Kremlin has also pledged to back the results of Sunday’s vaguely worded and internationally contested referendums in the mostly Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, reports The New York Times.

Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the results of Sunday's referendums "should be a clear signal to Kiev of the depth of the crisis" in Ukraine. Russia stopped short of endorsing independence for these regions, but said the implementation of the vote’s results should be carried out “in a civilized way,” according to The Washington Post.

Though the referendum – which was organized, executed, and tallied by separatists in eastern Ukraine – suggested overwhelming support for turning towards Russia, a recent poll by ComRes for CNN found that the results of the referendum may not be representative. The poll found that most Ukrainians don’t support Russia, even in the eastern parts of the country that have voted to secede.

The people of Ukraine feel much more loyal to Europe than to Russia, and a clear majority back economic sanctions against Russia, according to the poll of 1,000 people across the country conducted in the past week….

More than half (56%) said they felt a stronger sense of loyalty to Europe than to Russia, while 19% said they felt more loyal to Russia and 22% said neither. Three percent said they didn't know….

The CNN poll found that even in eastern Ukraine, a minority of people back an alliance with Russia.

Just over a third (37%) of Ukrainians in three eastern regions favor an alliance with Russia, while 14% of the region backs an alliance with the European Union and about half (49%) say Ukraine would be better off if it did not ally with either, the poll found.

The poll results roughly match other recent surveys of eastern Ukrainian attitudes towards Russia, Europe, and Kiev. 

Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk today urged the Kremlin to call on separatists in Ukraine to disarm: “As soon as [Russia] stops backing separatists and terrorists, the situation will become much better than it is,” Mr. Yatsenyuk said.

Additional European Union sanctions were enacted on Monday, including the freezing of company assets for the first time, reports Bloomberg News.

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