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Ukraine crisis: Shaky ceasefire holds as talks expected

Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine are observing a ceasefire after weeks of bitter fighting, officials say.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had earlier called for a "Day of Silence", to make a widely-violated ceasefire deal stick.

New talks between the rebels and the government could take place in Belarus in the coming days.

Russia has resumed gas supplies to Ukraine after months of tough talks.

Ukrainian pipeline operator Ukrtransgaz says up to 43.5m cubic metres (1.5bn cu ft) will be imported daily, to prevent winter shortages.

Ukraine has paid Russia's Gazprom $378m (£242m; €308m) in advance for December deliveries, officials say.

Russia cut off Ukraine's gas in June as the conflict between the government in Kiev and the rebels in the east escalated. But a new gas deal was reached through EU mediation in October.

Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of supplying heavy weapons and troops to the rebels - something Moscow has repeatedly denied.

The warring sides signed a truce in Minsk in September, but more than 1,000 people have been killed in fighting since then, the UN says.

Some of the heaviest fighting has raged at Donetsk airport.

The Ukrainian military said on Tuesday a ceasefire had begun in "all the positions of the anti-terrorist operation forces", Interfax Ukraine news agency reported.

The pro-Russian separatists had also laid down their arms at 09:00 (07:00 GMT) across eastern Ukraine, Russia's Ria Novosti agency said.

Mr Poroshenko said last week that troops would observe the Day of Silence on Tuesday to try to boost the peace deal.

Since the conflict began in April, more than 4,300 people have died with almost one million displaced, the UN says.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Kiev must not renege on a pledge to give "special status" to the rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk areas in the east.

Speaking to Russia's RIA Novosti news agency, he said Mr Poroshenko had called for that status to be cancelled - a move that would "only strengthen the distrust between the sides, complicating their already difficult dialogue".

He also accused Kiev of blocking financial co-operation with the rebel-held areas.

Talks in doubt
Authorities in Minsk said they had not received any confirmation that either the Ukrainian government or rebel representatives would attend new peace talks, which were planned to begin on Tuesday.

Russian media reports say that the talks may now begin on Friday instead, but this has not been confirmed.

The previous Minsk agreement, brokered in September, projected a 30km (18 mile) military buffer zone in the east and limited self-rule for the separatists.

However, the rebels then held leadership elections on 2 November that Ukraine and the West refused to recognise.

There have been near-daily clashes and exchanges of heavy weapons fire, leaving hundreds dead.

Meanwhile, the last pieces of wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine, have arrived in the Netherlands for investigation.

Ukraine and its allies have accused Russia of supplying the missile used to bring down the plane, while Russia has denied involvement.

A total of 298 people died when the plane came down in July.

The Ukraine crisis began a year ago, when then-President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned an agreement on closer trade ties with EU in favour of closer co-operation with Russia.

This decision sparked pro-EU protests in the capital Kiev, eventually toppling Mr Yanukovych in February.

In the weeks that followed, Russia annexed Crimea, in Ukraine's south, and pro-Russian separatists took control of Donetsk and Luhansk, declaring independence.

The crisis has caused a serious rift between Russia and Ukraine's Western supporters.

Russia wants Israeli explanation for 'aggressive actions' in Syria
Jerusalem Post

Russia wants Israeli explanation for 'aggressive actions' in Syria

Israel has not officially acknowledged carrying out the attack, though that did not stop Iran and Syria from placing blame on Jerusalem.

The Kremlin is seeking clarifications from Israel regarding the air strikes that hit Syria on Sunday reportedly destroying Russian-made arms bound for Hezbollah, the DPA news agency reported on Monday.

Israel has not officially acknowledged carrying out the attack, though that did not stop Iran and Syria from placing blame on Jerusalem.

"Moscow is deeply worried by this dangerous development, the circumstances of which demand an explanation," a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Moscow is quoted as saying.

The Russian government sent a letter to the United Nations protesting Israel’s “aggressive action.”

The foreign ministers of Iran and Syria held a joint news conference on Monday during which they charged that the attack proves that Israel was making common cause with “terrorists” in Syria fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.

During their news conference in Tehran, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took turns denouncing the attack.

Moallem said the airstrikes “lifted the morale of terrorists” while Zarif said that the bombings made it more urgent for Syria to “dry up the sources of terrorism.”

Syrian opposition sources told Arab media on Monday that the airstrikes destroyed a storage facility housing anti-aircraft missiles as well as drones belonging to Hezbollah.

Why Germany Is No Longer Russia's Best Western Friend
by Ivan Nechepurenko

Germany has been Russia's key partner in Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there are signs that Berlin is prepared to change this situation — and the sticking issues will take a long time to resolve and could determine the future of Russia-Europe relations as a whole, analysts say.

Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel toughened her rhetoric on Russian President Vladimir Putin in an apparent sign she is prepared to endure a long-term confrontation.

"The actions of Russia [in Ukraine] have called the peaceful order in Europe into question and are a violation of international law," she said in a speech in parliament Wednesday.

"Economic sanctions remain unavoidable and show that in our efforts to get through the crisis we will need patience and perseverance," she said.

In the same week, the annual meeting of the high-profile St. Petersburg Dialogue Germany-Russia forum that was attended by Merkel and Putin in person was postponed indefinitely, the forum's organizer Martin Hoffman told The Moscow Times.

"We are losing Russia not in terms of Putin and elites, but in terms of people at large," Hoffman, the director of German-Russian forum said in a phone interview.

The meeting of the forum's chairs was scheduled for Dec. 1, but was canceled due to Germany's demand to reform the forum for it to include more independent civil society members.

Matter of Principle
Germany has chosen to put the wellbeing of the EU above its own bilateral relations with Russia in deference to the values that define the EU, Fyodor Lukyanov, head of Russia's Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, told The Moscow Times.

"For them, the priority is European unity and the future of the EU, which is increasingly becoming a German organization. It made the choice to act in the name of the EU and underline its leadership," he told The Moscow Times.

Analysts said Merkel is keenly aware of her country's unofficial role as the leader of the EU, and is exercising caution in the knowledge that other state leaders look to Berlin for guidance.

"Merkel expresses the policy of the union as a whole now," Lukyanov said.

Bolstered by the economic centralization that followed the 2008 financial crisis, Germany, whose export-oriented manufacturing has benefited over the last 15 years from the weakening of the euro, found itself in a leading role in Europe; in terms of the Ukraine crisis this role is also strengthened by the country's traditionally strong ties with Russia.

Germany bailed out much of the EU after the 2008 financial crisis, which pushed the common currency project to the brink of collapse. As a result, the country feels even stronger now about keeping the EU united, and is treading a fine line to avoid sparking divisions among the union's diverse 28 members, analysts said.

At the same time, the concept that with power comes responsibility is also driving Germany's Russia policy, experts agreed.

Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said earlier this year that Berlin should assume an expanded and more assertive role in international affairs. The policy, sometimes dubbed the "New Responsibility," called for more German leadership in European affairs.

Germany is no longer squeezed between the U.S. and Russia, said Ulrich Speck, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

"Germany cannot be a mediator anymore, because it is an actor now; Germany is the big guy by itself," he said in a phone interview.

Crossing a Red Line
In this situation, a stronger Germany had a choice: It could lead Europe in an attempt to mediate the crisis, reaping benefits from the increased trust with Russia and Putin in particular, or it could toughen its rhetoric and emphasize that the Kremlin has crossed a red line by annexing Crimea.

The key issue in this situation was the legality of Russia's Crimea annexation, which is contrary to the EU rhetoric and values, said Vladislav Belov, head of the German Studies Center at the Russian Academy of Science.

"It is very important for Merkel to maintain strong rhetoric on Putin and Russia, demonstrate her unbending will and independence from Moscow," he said.

On Friday a poll commissioned by ZDF television found that 58 percent of Germans back the EU sanctions even if they damage the German economy, up from 52 percent a month ago. The poll also found that 76 percent supported the sharper tone of Merkel's recent criticism of Putin's policies.

Belov expects that Merkel will keep up the harsher rhetoric for at least three or four months, until the EU has to decide whether it will extend sanctions against Russia or not. In the long term, the status of Crimea will be agreed upon at least informally: The recent plea by former German minister Matthias Platzeck to recognize Crimea as Russian territory is a sign that this process is under way, Belov said.

Personal Chemistry
In a recent in-depth profile of Merkel, the New Yorker magazine reported that Putin had lied to her on at least one occasion: in May, when the official Kremlin statement about a phone call between the two leaders was more positive that the stance Merkel believed they had agreed on in advance. According to the profile, Merkel was furious and canceled a call scheduled for the following week.

A comparison of each of the three official Kremlin statements on phone calls between Merkel and Putin in May revealed nothing that stood out. Overall, Merkel and Putin have spoken on the phone at least 40 times in the last nine months, according to the Kremlin's website.

Tatyana Stanovaya of the Center of Political Technologies think tank in Moscow said that Merkel's personal enmity toward Putin plays a large role in bilateral dynamics.

"Merkel personally dislikes Putin as a person, so she is putting her stakes on regime change in Russia, which will take some time. She thinks it's impossible to agree upon anything with today's Russia and its leader, who cannot be trusted," Stanovaya said in a phone interview.

While Merkel's predecessor called Putin a "flawless democrat," Merkel reportedly told U.S. President Barack Obama that Putin lives "in another world."

At the same time, Belov pointed out that when Putin was two hours late for a meeting with Merkel in Milan in October, her advisors told her to cancel it, but the meeting was instead re-scheduled for another time.

"Putin and Merkel spoke for four hours in Brisbane [at the recent G20 Summit], they communicate with each other more than they do with any other world leaders. This is constructive dialogue, but its content is secret," he said.

During the summit in November, Merkel confronted Putin during a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders in a Brisbane hotel, but the four-hour stand-off did not yield much fruit. Several German officials told Reuters following the meeting that they anticipate a long period of confrontation, "akin to a second Cold War."

At the same time, on a number of occasions Merkel has said that she doesn't let personal emotions interfere with her political judgement or logic.

"With Russia now, when one feels very angry I force myself to talk regardless of my feelings," she said in a speech at the German Historical Museum last May as quoted by the New Yorker. "And every time I do this I am surprised at how many other views you can have on a matter that I find totally clear."

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