Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he’ll call a cease-fire tomorrow if peace talks with pro-Russian rebels take place as scheduled, amid reports of Russian tanks moving toward a key eastern seaport.
Poroshenko, in Wales for a NATO summit, said on Ukrainian television he’ll declare a halt to the fighting at 2 p.m. Minsk time if negotiations begin as planned in the capital of Belarus. Officials from Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are also due to attend. Poroshenko has ended cease-fires because of rebel attacks.
The self-declared people’s republics of Ukraine’s easternmost Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where most of the fighting in the five-month conflict has occurred, released statements saying they’ll join the cease-fire if the government in Kiev signs their plan for a political resolution.
“Ukraine has never wanted war, is tired of war and will do everything possible to bring peace to this land,” Poroshenko said on TV5.
Fighting continued in the southeast, with Ukrainian television showing a column of Russian tanks moving toward Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and skirmishes on the outskirts of the city. More than 3,000 Russian troops with tanks are already operating inside Ukraine and the number is growing, Sky News cited NATO officials as saying today.
Still, a lasting cease-fire would be the biggest breakthrough of the war, which has claimed 2,600 lives, displaced more than 1 million people and led to several rounds of U.S. and European Union sanctions on Russia.
Poroshenko, who succeeded Donetsk native Viktor Yanukovych after the Kremlin-backed leader was driven from power amid protests in February, said he sees clear support from the 28 member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO, set up in 1949 in part to counter the Soviet Union, accuses President Vladimir Putin of stoking the separatist rebellion after Russia annexed Crimea in March.
Putin, who denies Russian involvement in the fighting, unveiled a seven-point plan yesterday after agreeing with his Ukrainian counterpart on steps toward a truce. The proposal includes an end to the rebel offensive and the withdrawal of the Ukrainian military from residential areas.
Russian stocks, battered by the fighting, rallied on the news, with the Micex Index rising 0.9 percent to 1,457.34 in Moscow, rebounding from a decline of 0.7 percent.
Poroshenko, 48, said he’s offering legal changes that will lead to stability in Luhansk and Donetsk, though he didn’t provide any details of what those are. Putin, 61, won’t settle for anything less than turning Luhansk and Donetsk into quasi statelets with the right to veto major national initiatives, such as Ukraine joining NATO, according to five current and former Russian officials and advisers.
Putin is willing to wait until November, after Ukraine elects a new parliament and the heating season starts, to ensure his goals are met, in part by extending a natural gas cutoff to force a compromise if needed, one official said on condition of anonymity after speaking with Putin last week.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Putin’s plan is just “window dressing” timed to coincide with the NATO summit and aimed at avoiding further sanctions. Ukrainian forces have been reeling from a series of reverses sparked by what they called a “full-scale invasion” by Russia last week.
Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the Defense Committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, said any peace deal now will have to include the de facto partitioning of Ukraine.
“The leaders of these republics in Donetsk and Luhansk are ready to enter negotiations, but they won’t back down,” Klintsevich said yesterday. “No matter what happens, they’ll live separately from Kiev. After so much bloodshed, there’s no other choice. They’ll fight to the last bullet if necessary.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Sept. 1 that the rebels would continue to gain ground unless Ukraine sued for peace. The same day, Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper said Putin told European Commission President Jose Barroso he could take Kiev in two weeks if he wanted, remarks Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said were taken out of context. Last week, Putin warned against any “aggression” toward Russia, noting the country remains “one of the world’s biggest nuclear powers.”
“The West is afraid of a major war and Putin is exploiting that,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, a Kremlin adviser during Putin’s first term who now heads the Institute for National Strategy in Moscow. “The point is to frighten the West and Ukraine into thinking he’ll take Kiev and change the map of Europe unless he gets what he wants. He’s bluffing.”