By Andreas Rinke and Alexei Anishchuk
Talks between Russia, Ukraine and European governments on Friday were “full of misunderstandings and disagreements”, the Kremlin said, undercutting more upbeat messages from leaders hoping for a breakthrough in the Ukraine crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shook hands with his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko at the start of a meeting with European leaders aimed at patching up a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and resolving a dispute over gas supplies.
The various leaders emerged an hour later telling reporters some progress had been made and promising further talks.
“It was good, it was positive,” a smiling Putin told reporters after the meeting, held on the margins of a summit of Asian and European leaders in Milan.
However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later poured cold water on hopes of any breakthrough, saying “certain participants” had taken an “absolutely biased, non-flexible, non-diplomatic” approach to Ukraine.
“The talks are indeed difficult, full of misunderstandings, disagreements, but they are nevertheless ongoing, the exchange of opinion is in progress,” he said.
A similar message emerged overnight after Putin met German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a formerly cordial relationship that has come under heavy strain from Moscow’s support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The meeting was reported by both sides to have made little progress, with the Kremlin saying “serious differences” remained in their analysis of a crisis.
Putin, Poroshenko, Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were due meet later in the day, their aides said.
The West has imposed sanctions on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea and its support for east Ukraine’s separatists.
The European leaders urged Russia to do more to end constant, deadly violations of a ceasefire that was agreed by Putin and Poroshenko last month in Minsk, saying Russia needed to fulfil its commitments.
Officials said local elections and the issue of using unmanned drone aircraft for surveillance of the borders between Russia and Ukraine were particular sticking points in the discussions, with Russia pushing to have its drones taking part alongside those offered by France and Germany.
The crisis in relations with Kiev has led Russia to cut gas supplies to Ukraine because of unpaid bills. TheEuropean Union fears this could threaten disruptions in the gas flow to the rest of the continent this winter, and is working hard to broker a deal.
Russia is Europe’s biggest gas supplier, accounting for around a third of demand, and the European Union gets about half of the Russian gas it uses via Ukraine.
The stand-off over pricing is the third in a decade between Moscow and Kiev, though this time tensions are higher because of the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters that Russia, Ukraine and EU officials would meet in Brussels to try to resolve the gas row.
Kiev and its Western backers accuse Moscow of aiding a pro-Russian separatist revolt in eastern Ukraine by providing troops and arms. Russia denies the charges but says it has a right to defend the interests of the region’s Russian-speaking majority.
Taking the lead in the diplomacy, Merkel saw Poroshenko on Thursday evening and then met Putin until well after midnight — an encounter that was significantly delayed because the Russian president arrived in Milan much later than expected.
Speaking off the record, a German source said Putin had not been in a “too constructive mood”.
Putin had warned on Thursday that Russia would reduce gas supplies to Europe if Ukraine took gas from the transit pipeline to cover its own needs, although he added that he was “hopeful” it would not come to that.
More than 3,600 people have died in eastern Ukraine since fighting broke out in mid-April when armed separatists declared they were setting up their own state.
Although Putin announced this week that Russian troops near the border with Ukraine would be pulled back, Western officials want to see clear evidence that Moscow is acting on this.
“Vladimir Putin said very clearly he doesn’t want a frozen conflict and doesn’t want a divided Ukraine. But if that’s the case, then Russia now needs to take the actions to put in place all that has been agreed,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“If those things don’t happen, then clearly the European Union, Britain included, must keep in place the sanctions and the pressure so we don’t have this sort of conflict in our continent.”