MINSK (Reuters) - The talks lasted more than 17 hours, during which a couple of “buckets” of coffee were drunk, and took place in what Ukraine’s foreign minister, with some understatement, described as a “difficult psychological atmosphere”.
The ‘family photograph’ of participants at the start of the four-power marathon in the Belarussian capital Minsk told much of the story in advance: Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko stood at one end of the line-up - with the leaders of Germany and France keeping him well apart from Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The drily-worded declaration at the end of the Ukraine peace summit concealed the drama of an overnight diplomatic roller-coaster. Nerves were stretched to breaking point in negotiations which all sides agreed were often close to collapse.
With a small army of about 500 journalists monitoring their every move, participants ferried backwards and forwards from negotiations throughout the long night in Minsk’s cavernous Palace of Independence, Poroshenko often visibly deep in thought.
Delegates, sometimes running at full tilt, dashed with documents into conference rooms. Outside one room, journalists could see delegates unfurling maps of Ukraine for examination.
Poroshenko would often step away to a room set aside for him to call for a battlefield update from his military chiefs, aides said.
He and Putin shook hands at the start of talks on Wednesday evening, squaring off like prize-fighters sizing up for a world contest.
As the night went into Thursday morning, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande increasingly took on the role of facilitators, shuttling from room to room between the two.
By the end, after what Putin drily observed was “not one of the best nights of my life”, the Kremlin leader was visibly avoiding the Ukrainian leader, reporters said, seeking out Merkel and Hollande’s company instead.
In a parting shot to Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, overheard by reporters as he prepared to leave for home, Poroshenko refers to a Russian ‘dirty game’.
Putin himself said at the end that it was “not one of the best nights in my life, but the morning is good because, despite all the complexities of the talks process, we managed to agree on the main thing”.
“Nobody slept. There were difficult times, tough times, in different formats to try to loosen the knots,” a French delegation source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“It would take place in a circular manner between different groups depending on the situation. Merkel and Hollande would see Poroshenko and Putin occasionally with delegations, from time to time in a small room next door,” the source said.
A by-product of the encounter was the rehabilitation - for a while at least - of Belarussian leader Lukashenko, who is a pariah in the West because of his hard-line policies at home. He was once described by the United States as Europe’s ‘last dictator’.
He seized the opportunity to project himself as a peace broker as host to Western leaders after years of being shunned by them.
The following are snapshots from Reuters correspondents covering the talks which provide an insight into their dynamics:
- Poroshenko from the start acts like a man in a hurry. An aide said he rushed late onto the Antonov taking him from Kiev to Minsk. Once on board, he says: “Come on let’s get off! We’re running late!”
- Lukashenko presents Merkel with a small bouquet of flowers when she arrives with Hollande. This is the first visit by any Western leader to Belarus for years. They are all smiles when they say farewell 17 hours later.
- A press scrum that forms around Poroshenko when he arrives at the venue brings a human touch from the Ukrainian leader. He helps to his feet a cameraman who is knocked over as security staff push back journalists, saying: “Please excuse me.”
- As talks start, delegates can be seen outside the negotiations pulling out wall-maps of Ukraine. One appears to say to the other: “No, not that one. The other one.”
- In the early hours, Merkel and Hollande apparently bring Poroshenko and Putin back on speaking terms. They are seen piling into a lift, rushing, an aide said, to find Putin. They return to see Poroshenko and Putin later joins them.
- “A battle of nerves is under way,” a top Poroshenko aide, Valery Chaly, writes on Facebook at about 4 a.m.
- Waitresses shuttle in and out of the negotiating chambers, pushing trolleys groaning with salads and fruit and bottles of water. Lukashenko, proudly proclaiming Belarussian hospitality says: “We ate fried eggs, cheese, dairy products and drank a couple of buckets of coffee.”
- Poroshenko frequently flits in and out of a side-room to get an update from his military commanders. On one occasion, he comes out seemingly angered. Asked if an agreement will be signed, he says through clenched teeth: “Let’s see.”
- At about midnight, the Ukrainian press get a clear signal the talks have collapsed. They are told to pack to leave and wait at the entrance, where a bus is waiting to take them to an urgent briefing by Poroshenko. After about half-an-hour, they are told to return to the conference area.
- Journalists try to piece bits of conversation overheard from leaders when they emerge into the public area at the end of talks. “It’s difficult. He is playing a dishonest and dirty game,” says Poroshenko. “I know, I know, and everybody knew that,” replies his interlocutor, Lukashenko. Poroshenko adds: “He plays that game everywhere.”
- For once, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is a bit-player in the drama. He seems in a good mood through the night, though he gives little away. “We’ve been invited to eat salo,” he says at one point, jovially referring to salted pig’s fat, a staple of traditional Ukrainian cuisine.
- Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, in a comment echoed by other delegations, tells parliament in Kiev on Friday: “On several occasions, there was a wish by us and by our friends to break off these negotiations.”
- “Hollande and Merkel were often in the role of listening, facilitators,” a French delegation source said. “For Poroshenko and Ukrainians it was more painful, given the situation on the ground, although Putin and Poroshenko do not have a hostile relationship,” the source said.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, Vladimir Soldatkin, Pavel Polityuk; Writing By Richard Balmforth; editing by Janet McBride