KIEV: Secretary of State John Kerry will meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva for talks on the Ukraine crisis Monday, less than a week after accusing Moscow of lying to his face over the conflict.
High stakes talks between Kiev and Moscow are also set to get under way Monday aimed at resolving a bitter gas dispute which threatens deliveries to Europe, after Russia began direct supplies to parts of separatist-held eastern Ukraine.
As relative quiet held on Ukraine’s frontlines, Russia’s foreign minister looked set for tense discussions with Kerry, who last week said Moscow officials had engaged in a “propaganda” campaign and lied “to my face” over supplying troops or weapons to rebels.
Efforts to implement a tattered ceasefire that began on February 15 between Russia, Ukraine and the pro-Kremlin rebels are expected to top Monday morning’s agenda.
Kiev security officials said Sunday there was no fire after midnight on Ukrainian positions and no Ukrainian soldiers had been killed over the past 24 hours.
Security spokesman Andriy Lysenko, however, said eight soldiers were injured after rebels shot at Kiev’s positions late Saturday, including from a tank and a grenade launcher. Journalists mourned the killing by mortar fire of a Ukrainian photographer.
Despite a drop in the number of truce violations, it was “too soon to tell if we are in any way out of the woods,” a State Department official travelling with Kerry told reporters.
“At this point a further pullback of heavy weapons is what’s required. There are continued violations of the agreement that we’ve also noted,” the staffer said.
Following the shaky start to February’s European-brokered peace plan, both sides have begun to pull back some heavy weaponry from the frontline, with rebels claiming Sunday that they would complete the pullback by the end of the weekend.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have reported weapons movements on both sides but say it is too early to confirm a full pullback.
Speaking at the UN Security Council Friday, the OSCE’s envoy to Ukraine Heidi Tagliavini said the current situation was at a “crossroads” where the risk of further escalation remained high despite “encouraging signs.”
Fighting in Ukraine has killed at least 5,800 people since last April.
With the relative hiatus in fighting on the ground, the focus will also be on three-way gas talks set for Monday between the energy ministers of Ukraine and Russia, together with European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic.
Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom threatened last week to cut deliveries to Ukraine over a dispute related to Moscow’s move to supply gas direct to separatist areas and then demand that Kiev pay for it.
Rebel leaders in east Ukraine said that Kiev had suddenly ceased gas supplies, and asked for access to gas from Russia.
Ukraine’s national gas company Naftogas stopped pumping gas to the separatist areas last month, saying it could not deliver due to a damaged pipeline, but then added that deliveries resumed a few hours later.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Ukraine of perpetrating a kind of “genocide” by denying energy to four million people living in territories hit by a humanitarian crisis.
The Kremlin appeared to soften its rhetoric, however, after the European Union unveiled plans Wednesday for a continent-wide single energy market, with the goal of diversifying the bloc’s energy sources and decreasing its reliance on Russian gas.
Moscow argues that supplies to the east bypassing Kiev fall under the current agreement and must be bankrolled by Ukraine. But the government says it has no control over the volume or usage of such supplies and accuses Gazprom of violating the deal.
The European Union receives about a third of its gas from Russia, with half that amount transiting via Ukraine pipelines.
In Kiev, colleagues mourned the death of photojournalist Sergiy Nikolayev from the Ukrainian daily Segodnya. He died after being hit by a mortar shell in Pisky, a village not far from Donetsk airport which Ukraine’s forces ceded to the rebels in January.
Nikolayev, 43, succumbed to his injuries, along with a fighter from the ultra-nationalist organisation Right Sector, late Saturday.
In Moscow Russian investigators detained Ukrainian lawmaker Alexei Goncharenko and questioned him as part of a probe into a fire last May in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa, in which 50 people were killed after clashes between pro-Russia activists and supporters of Kiev.
Goncharenko’s lawyer said later that his client had been released from police custody but had been called to appear before an administrative tribunal on Monday, adding it was still possible that he would be detained again.
The Ukrainian lawmaker had been in Moscow before a march there Sunday to honour opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down near the Kremlin on Friday .