Opinion: At least they"re still talking

Steps toward de-escalation should be taken in eastern Ukraine - that is all that four-way talks in Berlin came up with. An urgently needed move, says DW's Bernd Johann and points to fresh tensions in Donetsk.

Finding a common language has become difficult for the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine. But at least they agreed to a joint declaration, speaking out in favor of the withdrawal of heavy weapons along a demarcation line.

The move comes in the wake of sharply increased fighting in eastern Ukraine over the past week, and renewed civilian casualties within just a few days' time. It's the worst fighting in months: the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists are fighting a war of attrition in the devastated landscape of Donetsk airport.

In the midst of this eastern Ukrainian nightmare, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier invited his counterparts from Russia, Ukraine and France to talks in Berlin - their second meeting within a week.

Expectations were low, and even after the meeting, no one indicated a breakthrough.

Chance for a political solution

It's uncertain whether the Berlin agreement will ever be implemented - deals were broken too many times in the past.

More talks would be needed to include the separatists, too. The international contact group, comprised of all conflict parties, must get together as quickly as possible to negotiate the details of military de-escalation.

So far, the separatists have been uncompromisingly intent on their own agenda. Their goal is the secession of the territories they control with the help of Russian weapons and fighters. Currently, rabble-rousers are influential in Ukraine, too.

All the same, diplomatic efforts are the right move, as Kyiv and Moscow still seek a dialogue. Both sides know that severing the fragile dialogue would spell the end to hopes for an end to the bloodshed. Then, it would be but a tiny step toward an open war between the two countries.

Moscow has so far fought this battle under wraps. Should the separatists come under pressure as a result of a continued Ukrainian military offensive, however, Russia might feel compelled to resort to open intervention. The consequence would be a war in which everyone stands to lose.

Lines of communication

So, Germany and France have unwaveringly pushed for political progress. They want to make sure the dialogue doesn't fall silent. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in particular, is the most important mediator in the conflict at this time. He remains in close contact with Moscow and he knows that he may be the only western politician who can still get Russia and Ukraine to meet at the negotiating table.

Relations between Russia and the US are icy, and there's not much communication between the EU and Moscow any more, either. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladmir Putin, who spoke dozens of times last year, have little to say to one another these days. That's more than understandable from the chancellor's point of view as Putin repeatedly snubbed her. Merkel wasn't able to accomplish anything because Putin was bent on a collision course.

So now, only the foreign ministers are still speaking. Clearly, neither side has closed the door to political solutions once and for all. But the crack in the opening has gotten awfully small.

By DW

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