Ukraine Names New Ground Forces Head as Eastern Death Toll Rises
Russia called on Ukraine to postpone a May 25 presidential election and draft a new constitution first, as the government in Kiev continued a military offensive against separatists in the country’s east and south.
It would be “more logical and fair” to complete the constitution in the fall and then hold elections by year-end, as foreseen in a February accord, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Vienna, where he met his German counterpart. “Holding an election when the army is being used against part of the population is quite illogical.”
Ukraine’s government and its U.S. and European allies accuse Russia of fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine. They have imposed sanctions on people and companies close to President Vladimir Putin, and threatened to tighten them if Russia doesn’t stop supporting the separatists before the presidential vote.
Lavrov’s U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry, dismissed as “bogus” and “contrived” plans by pro-Russian forces in the Donetsk region to hold a referendum on secession.
“We flatly reject this illegal effort to further divide Ukraine,” Kerry said today at a news conference in Washington with European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. “Its pursuit will create even more problems in the effort to try to de-escalate the situation.”
Kerry urged Ukraine to proceed with the May 25 vote and reiterated that the U.S. is ready to impose sanctions aimed at sectors of Russia’s economy.
Russia’s Micex Index (INDEXCF) of stocks rose 1.6 percent at the close in Moscow, the biggest gain in more than two weeks. The ruble gained 0.7 percent against the central bank’s euro-dollar basket. It has lost about 7 percent this year against the dollar, the third-biggest drop among 24 emerging market currencies tracked by Bloomberg.
The Ukraine Equities Index (UX) rose 1.4 percent, its first gain since April 23, while the hryvnia fell 1.4 percent against the dollar.
Ukraine’s government began its assault against rebels in the Donetsk region on April 13, after gunmen seized buildings and took several dozen captives.
The Ukrainian troops fighting the separatists are encountering many activists from Crimea, which Russia annexed in March, as well as Russians and Chechens, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Facebook. Avakov said four soldiers and about 30 rebels were killed in the latest clashes yesterday.
The pilots of a Ukrainian military helicopter survived after their aircraft was hit with machine-gun fire and crashed into a river in the Donetsk region, the Defense Ministry said on its website. Insurgents have downed three choppers and damaged another since May 2.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov today named Lieutenant General Anatoliy Pushnyakov as the new head of the country’s ground forces.
Russia is pushing for Ukraine to change its constitution to devolve more power to its regions and give official status to the Russian language. About 17 percent of Ukraine’s 45 million people identified themselves as Russian in a 2001 census.
French President Francois Hollande warned today that Russian efforts to block the Ukrainian election risked sparking a civil war. He said EU leaders will keep pressing Putin to allow the vote to be held.
Russia has about 40,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, according to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO won’t hesitate to take further steps to defend member states if Russia continues to destabilize the region, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said today in Brussels. He cited steps already taken, including expanded air policing in the Baltic region and a bigger naval presence in the Black Sea.
In Vienna, Lavrov and EU officials discussed ways to revive Ukraine diplomacy after the unraveling of a series of deals. Lavrov said a new round of talks won’t work if they repeat the format of last month’s Geneva meeting “where the opposition to the current regime in Ukraine is absent from the negotiating table.”