MINSK Four-way talks on ending a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine finished without a breakthrough on Tuesday, with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier declaring that "lip service" statements were not enough to achieve lasting peace.
Amid low expectations, the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia met in the Belarussian capital to discuss ways of implementing last year's Minsk ceasefire accord for Ukraine's Donbass region.
Steinmeier said both Ukraine and Russia had hardened their positions and there was no political agreement in sight on holding local elections in Donbass, as demanded by Russia and the Kremlin-backed separatists.
"It was very tedious again today," Steinmeier said. "Pure lip service will not be enough to solve this conflict."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meanwhile pushed back on a Ukrainian proposal to allow armed OSCE monitors in Donbass.
"There weren't any breakthroughs today. The Minsk agreements are stalled -- we're not managing to agree on the sequence of steps," Lavrov told reporters.
Highlighting some positives, Steinmeier did, however, say the International Red Cross could help facilitate a significant exchange of prisoners before the end of the year and was optimistic about more phased troops withdrawals taking place.
PRESENTS TO RUSSIA
The four nations agreed in October to draw up a roadmap this month on how to implement a ceasefire agreement struck in Minsk last year to end fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Separatist violence there has killed nearly 10,000 people since it erupted in 2014.
Kiev and the West accuse Russia of stoking the separatist movement and aiding the rebels. Western nations have imposed economic sanctions on Moscow. The Kremlin denies these charges, however, and accuses Ukraine of perpetuating the violence and violating the Minsk deal.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said there was still a long way to go on implementing the Minsk process. Speaking to Reuters ahead of the talks, he also called for Europe to stand firm on sanctions against Russia.
With one eye on the presidential election race back home, where front runner Francois Fillon favours lifting the sanctions, Ayrault said Russia was playing a waiting game to allow Western divisions on the Ukraine crisis to widen.
Lifting sanctions "would weaken the objective of resolving this conflict and would be a victory to those who endangered the security of a country," Ayrault said.
The Russians "are waiting for divisions to increase in Ukraine, Europe and elsewhere. That's why we have to remain consistent. We're already seeing in the internal French political debate that some want to give Russia presents."
(Writing by Madeline Chambers and Matthias Williams; additional reporting by Andrei Makhovsky in MINSK and Andrea Shalal in BERLIN; Editing by Richard Lough)