VOLGOGRAD, Russia (Reuters) - German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for a swift resolution to the Ukraine conflict on a visit to Volgograd on Thursday, expressing hope a peace deal agreed in Minsk would enter its “next phase”.
Steinmeier’s visit to the Russian city formerly called Stalingrad, where Soviet forces drove back Nazi troops in one of the bloodiest battles in history, comes days before the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe.
Relations between Russia and Germany, countries with multibillion-dollar trade and energy links, are at a low point over the conflict in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia for its backing of pro-Russian rebels there.
“Whatever different points of view there are between our sides on various issues, remembering Stalingrad we should strive to resolve the Ukraine conflict as soon as possible,” Steinmeier told reporters at a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“Due to the crisis in Ukraine it was especially important for me to come here, to pay respects to the dead,” he said.
The Russian and German foreign ministers welcomed the fact that working groups comprising Ukrainian officials, pro-Russian rebels and Russian officials had met on Wednesday under the supervision of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to try to build on a peace deal agreed in Minsk.
“That is an important step because it means that we could manage to enter the next phase of the implementation of the Minsk agreement,” Steinmeier said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is to visit Moscow on Sunday to discuss Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but she will skip a military parade on Red Square on Saturday.
Alongside Merkel, Steinmeier has played a leading role in trying to negotiate a peaceful solution to the Ukraine conflict, efforts that have put him frequently at odds with Putin.
The conflict between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists has killed more than 6,100 people.
Writing by Alexander Winning in Moscow; editing by Andrew Roche