June 23 (Bloomberg) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin backed a cease-fire declared by his Ukrainian counterpart, calling for all sides to halt military activities even as he put more than 65,000 troops on combat alert.
Putin said that while he supports the week-long truce that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced on June 20, the move shouldn’t be an ultimatum to militia groups and won’t be “viable or realistic” without “constructive steps” to start negotiations with rebel leaders in the country’s southeast.
The statement, issued two days ago by the Kremlin, came after the Defense Ministry in Moscow announced snap military drills across central Russia, the biggest since the country annexed Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March. Poroshenko, in office two weeks, is seeking to quell violence in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions that’s left hundreds dead.
“It’s extremely important to be able to support what President Poroshenko is trying to do,” European Union Foreign-Policy Chief Catherine Ashton said ahead of meeting of EU foreign ministers today in Luxembourg. “Calm and peace is essential for the future of the country.”
The U.S., which accuses Russia of aiding the pro-Russian separatists, last week imposed sanctions on people linked to the insurgency, adding to penalties announced more than a month ago. U.S. and European officials have warned that more painful penalties affecting Russia’s access to financial markets, technology and military hardware may come as early as this week if Putin fails to take measures to curb tensions.
The EU has imposed asset freezes and travel bans on 61 people in connection with the Ukraine crisis, stopping short so far of broader sanctions on investment or trade with Russia. No new penalties will be decided today, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said.
“No decision” will come out of a meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg today, Timmermans told reporters. He said the focus is on supporting Poroshenko’s peace plan with sanctions possibly up for discussion at a June 26-27 summit of EU leaders.
Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak said the EU should hold off until there is “clear proof about Russia’s involvement” in destabilizing eastern Ukraine. We are “in favor” of the peace process, he said.
French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Putin by phone yesterday that the fighting in Ukraine must end, Hollande’s office said by e-mail. Ukraine’s border with Russia must be free from military infiltration, the two European leaders told Putin.
Russia observed “rather active” shelling from the Ukrainian side overnight, RIA Novosti cited Putin as saying in Moscow yesterday. Ukrainian officials said that Russia is continuing to supply rebels with arms, including from bases in Crimea, and that militants have set fire to seven checkpoints in the past 24 hours.
U.S. analysts greeted Putin’s support for the cease-fire with skepticism.
“The Russian side wants to avoid the imposition of further Western sanctions by saying that it supports a cease-fire, but you have to focus on Russian actions, not words,” Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, said in an e-mail.
“As usual, Putin is trying to destabilize the situation in Ukraine and weaken the new government, while seeking to avoid sanctions from the West,’ Robert Orttung, assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian studies at George Washington University, said by e-mail.
Russia had originally dismissed Ukraine’s declaration of the cease-fire, spurring officials from the European Union to call on Putin -- before he issued his latest statement -- to support the peace plan.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said over the weekend his country would impose economic sanctions and travel bans against 11 people -- Vladimir Shamanov, the commander of the Russian Airborne Troops, and 10 Ukrainian rebel leaders. Feodosia Enterprise, a Crimea-based oil company, also is subject to the sanctions, Harper said.
Putin put troops in Russia’s Central Military District, which doesn’t share a border with Ukraine, on full combat alert and ordered them to conduct readiness drills through June 28 that will involve 5,500 pieces of military equipment, Vladimir Anikin, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said by phone.
In Kiev, the Foreign Ministry denounced Russia’s military activity, saying it ‘‘does not help to normalize the situation in Ukraine and to implement peaceful initiatives by the Ukrainian authorities,” according to an e-mailed statement issued before Putin said he backed the cease-fire.
While Ukraine seeks a peaceful solution to the conflict, its military is ready to act “adequately” if the truce is violated, Poroshenko said two days ago on his website prior to Putin’s latest statement. The peace plan has “powerful support” from European and U.S. leaders, Poroshenko said.
“Those who expect to use peaceful talks to play for time and to regroup forces should know we have a detailed plan B,” Poroshenko said. “We have enough force and political will to deliver a decisive blow to illegal armed groups.”
Ukraine called on all fighters to lay down arms, halting the offensive against rebels from 10 p.m. on June 20 until 10 a.m. on June 27.
Pro-Russian militants expressed skepticism the truce will be implemented, as skirmishes two days ago left nine border troops and one Russian customs official wounded, and an unspecified number of militants killed, Ukrainian authorities said.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden voiced concern in a phone conversation with Ukraine’s Poroshenko yesterday that separatist leaders have refused to reciprocate, according to an e-mailed statement from his office.
Separatists should lay down arms, Biden said and reiterated the U.S. and G-7 are preparing further sanctions against Russia if it doesn’t take action to stop flow of arms and militants across the border.
U.S. President Barack Obama spoke by phone on June 20 with Hollande and Merkel, agreeing in separate conversations the U.S. and the EU would “impose costs” on Russia if it doesn’t work to de-escalate the crisis, according to the White House.
Poroshenko’s 15-point peace plan includes holding early parliamentary and local elections in the mainly Russian-speaking Donetsk and Luhansk regions if all seized buildings and abducted people are freed.