Putin Backs Cease-Fire in Ukraine Amid Russia Army Drills

Russian President Vladimir Putin voiced support for a cease-fire in Ukraine declared by his 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 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 southeast regions.

The statement, issued late yesterday 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.

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.

Hollande, Merkel

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Putin by phone today that the fighting in Ukraine must end, Hollande’s office said in 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 today. 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.

Sanctions Debate

“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,” said Robert Orttung, assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian studies at George Washington University, also by e-mail.

Russia had originally dismissed Ukraine’s declaration of the cease-fire, spurring officials from the European Union and Germany yesterday to call on Putin -- before he issued his latest statement -- to support the peace plan.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said earlier yesterday 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.

Full Alert

Putin put troops in Russia’s central military region 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.

The statement was 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 cease-fire is violated, Poroshenko said yesterday on his website prior to Putin’s latest statement. The peace plan has “powerful support” from European and U.S. leaders, Poroshenko said.

‘Plan B’

“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, according to the president’s website.

Pro-Russian militants expressed skepticism the truce will be implemented, as fighting continued in at least seven places. Those skirmishes left nine border troops and one Russian customs official wounded, and an unspecified number of militants killed, Ukrainian authorities said yesterday.

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.

‘Tight Circle’

The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned seven individuals, including the acting governor of Sevastopol in Crimea and separatist leaders in Luhansk and Donetsk. Broader measures are being prepared against the finance, defense and technology industries if needed, two U.S. officials said.

The U.S. is levying penalties for the first time since April 28, when it sanctioned people and companies linked to Putin’s inner circle. Russia risks further measures when EU leaders meet later this month unless it helps end the unrest to support an emerging peace plan, Merkel said on June 20.

European diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said consensus has emerged within the 28-member group that tougher sanctions may be warranted when EU leaders meet June 26-27 in Brussels if Putin fails to abide by earlier pledges.

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.

Before the cease-fire can be implemented, Ukraine must reassert control over its border with Russia, across which fighters have crossed, according to Poroshenko.

Ukraine has secured control of “almost all” of the frontier with Russia, Poroshenko said. “The extremists are in a tight circle.”

The separatists are willing to consider the plan, according to Andrei Purgin, a deputy premier of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.

“If we see a true cease-fire, we may stop our actions as well,” he said by phone. “But I think there will be no cease-fire. In practice these statements are only political.”

A rebel leader in Donetsk, Pavel Gubarev, though, said on his Facebook page today that the DPR won’t recognize a cease-fire declared without “coordination with us.”

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