KIEV: European leaders heaped pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to help Ukraine’s new Western-backed leader save a shaky truce and fledgling talks on ending a separatist insurgency threatening his ex-Soviet state.
Kiev vowed on Wednesday to stick by its unilateral ceasefire and pursue negotiations despite the downing by pro-Russian militia of an army helicopter in the strife-torn eastern rustbelt.
The death of nine servicemen outside the rebel bastion of Slavyansk and loss of two troops in sporadic attacks prompted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to threaten to unleash a powerful new military campaign on Tuesday night.
The 48-year-old chocolate tycoon’s ominous warning dented hopes of the sides mediating an end to 11 weeks of guerrilla warfare that has killed more than 435 people and brought the nation of 46 million to the brink of collapse.
Poroshenko’s temporary ceasefire was picked up by rebel commanders on Monday but was due to expire on Friday morning after just two rounds of inconclusive talks.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said he told his counterparts in Brussels on Wednesday that Kiev had thus far kept to its pledge to hold fire despite dozens of rebel raids.
“We are committed to do our utmost to achieve the de-escalation of the situation,” Klimkin said during a meeting of top diplomats from the 28 NATO member states.
But a separatist leader in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said after a new round of peace talks with Kiev that the truce was holding in name only.
“There is no ceasefire,” Oleksandr Borodai said after meeting Kiev representatives in the regional hub of Donetsk.
Putin has urged both sides to extend the truce and pushed senators to revoke his March 1 authorisation to invade his western neighbour in a bid to “protect” ethnic Russians from the nationalists now in power in Kiev.
Russia’s rubber-stamp upper chamber approved Putin’s request on Wednesday in a 153-1 vote.
But Kiev and Washington still accuse Putin of covertly arming the rebels in retaliation for the February ouster of a pro-Russian administration that abruptly ditched an historic EU agreement and preferred closer ties with Moscow instead.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Brussels that Russia must still take “many concrete” steps to de-escalate the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.
The Ukrainian leader had German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande join him for an urgently-agreed conference call with Putin that Paris said lasted more than an hour.
The French presidency said Hollande and Merkel “encouraged” Putin and Poroshenko to “work together, especially in order to put in place a mechanism to oversee the truce”.
Poroshenko’s office added that the four agreed to continue the talks on Thursday in order to discuss a series of proposals made by Merkel that may be difficult for the Kremlin to accept.
These include a plan to let observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) to monitor the porous Ukrainian-Russian border and roadblocks in the conflict zone.
Poroshenko’s office said Merkel also wanted “an exchange of hostage lists and a public call by the Russian leadership for all those holding (hostages) to secure their release.”
The Kremlin said in a statement that “the importance of freeing detained persons by the conflicting sides was underlined” — a comment underscoring that Putin wanted similar pressure applied to Kiev as well.
Poroshenko will introduce to parliament on Thursday constitutional changes that expand some regional powers but stop well short of creating a federation that Putin had hoped would give the east a chance to build much closer ties with Moscow.
He will also sign the final chapters of the landmark EU pact in Brussels on Friday despite the strong likelihood that Russia will follow up a cut in gas deliveries it imposed on June 16 with punishing new trade barriers.
“The near-term economic impact of this agreement will depend very much on how Russia responds,” economists at London’s Capital Economic consultancy said in a research note.
“However, the agreement, coupled with Ukraine’s ($17.0-billion, 12.5-billion-euro) IMF deal, should act as an anchor for much-needed economic and political reforms which would boost growth over a medium-term horizon,” it added in a report.