February 12, 2015 by Bill Johnson
But all four leaders said there was a long way to go and accusations from Kiev of a new, mass influx of Russian armour into rebel-held eastern Ukraine further undermined the prospects for peace.
The deal envisages a ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists starting on Sunday, followed by the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line and constitutional reform to give eastern Ukraine more autonomy.
“The main thing which has been achieved is that from Saturday into Sunday there should be declared, without any conditions at all, a general ceasefire,” a visibly downbeat Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told journalists.
Emerging separately from more than 16 hours of negotiations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the sponsors of the talks, differed with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the reasons they took so long.
Putin accused Kiev of prolonging the talks, the culmination of a dramatic diplomatic initiative by France and Germany following an upsurge in fighting in which the separatists tore through an earlier ceasefire line.
Merkel on the other hand, said Poroshenko “did everything to achieve the possibility of an end to the bloodshed”, while she said Putin put pressure on the separatists to agree to the ceasefire “towards the end” of the talks.
The deal offered a “glimmer of hope” she said, but big obstacles remained in the way of peace.
It is likely to ease pressure in the United States for Washington to send military aid to the stretched Ukrainian army, and from some in Europe for tighter sanctions against Moscow, due to be discussed at a European summit later on Thursday.
The agreement could also help protect Putin from any fallout from the deaths of Russians in the fighting, said by Ukraine to be soldiers. Moscow says they are volunteers.
More than 5,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which has now surged, with more than 70 Ukrainian servicemen and at least 24 civilians killed so far this month, according to Reuters calculations based on official Ukrainian figures.
A Ukrainian military spokesman said around 50 tanks, 40 missile systems and 40 armoured vehicles had crossed overnight into eastern Ukraine from Russia. It was not immediately possible to verify the figures, which were higher than in previous such statements. Moscow dismisses them as groundless.
The fighting has destabilised Ukraine both militarily and economically. As the deal was reached, Ukraine was offered a $40-billion lifeline by the International Monetary Fund to stave off financial collapse.
Russia’s economy has also suffered, from the sanctions imposed over its support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea last year. Russian shares surged on Thursday after the deal was announced and the rouble gained, but then slipped back.