SIVERSK: Ukraine’s new Western-backed leader and Russian President Vladimir Putin both called for dialogue Sunday to end a pro-Moscow uprising that has threatened the ex-Soviet state’s survival and brought Europe to the edge of all-out war.
The twin calls from the central figures of the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War era both came with conditions and the ragtag militias in Ukraine’s eastern rustbelt showing no desire to end their independence drive.
“Both of my grandfathers were killed in World War II fighting the Nazis,” said a rebel named Andriy as he prepared ammunition for a heavy machinegun in his battle against what many separatists refer to as the “fascist” in power in Kiev today.
“I will continue their fight,” the 31-year-old said. Ukraine’s border guards reported three raids by the rebels in the eastern Lugansk region Sunday that followed similar attacks the day before.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko — who will crown his May 25 election promise by signing a historic EU trade pact in Brussels on Friday that pulls Kiev further out of the Kremlin’s reach — called a peaceful settlement “our plan A”.
“But those who are planning to use peaceful negotiations only to buy time and regroup their forces must know that we have a detailed plan B. I am not going to speak of it now because I believe that our peaceful plan will work out,” he said in a 12-minute television address.
The 48-year-old confectionery tycoon added that he had no intention of negotiating with those implicated in “murder and torture”.
Putin promised to stand behind Poroshenko’s peace efforts as long as they led to “substantial dialogue” and resulted in ethnic Russians winning broader language and other civil rights.
“Russia will certainly support these intentions. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is a political process,” Putin told reporters.
“It is important for dialogue between all warring parties to originate on the basis of this peace plan,” Putin said in his most overt endorsement of the blueprint to date.
Leaders in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic reaffirmed on Sunday that a “ceasefire unilaterally declared by the Ukrainian military without any coordination with us is not recognised by (our) militia.”
But Putin took the extra step Saturday to call on “the conflicting parties to halt all military activities and sit down at the negotiating table” — a comment that implied a degree of criticism for the rebels’ continued attacks.
The Kremlin chief has been sending mixed signals to Kiev that included a surprise order Saturday for Russian forces stretching from the Volga to western Siberia to go on “full combat alert”.
Some analysts see this as a bid by Putin — still stunned at seeing months of deadly pro-EU protests lead to the February ouster of a Kremlin-backed president — to unsettle the new pro-Western team and keep reins on the Russified southeast while avoiding new Western sanctions.
French President Francois Hollande’s office said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Putin in a three-way call Sunday “to promote the resumption of negotiations”.
“It is a cat and mouse game for both sides,” said Moscow’s Political Expert Group head Konstantin Kalachev.
“Putin wants the rebels to become involved in the talks. For peace, both sides are needed.”
Poroshenko stressed in his television address that he was “ready to talk with those who have erred, who mistakenly stood in the position of separatism.”
He addressed another top Putin priority by vowing to enshrine in the constitution locals’ right to use the Russian language in schools and official business.
And he confirmed plans to establish a 10-kilometre (six-mile) buffer zone along the Russian border to stem the flow of weapons and gunmen from Ukraine’s giant neighbour.
Both Kiev and its Western allies are anxious about the presence of new Russian forces along the frontier amid charges of growing flows of heavy weapons crossing into rebel-held parts of the east.
Ukrainian officials have told EU and G7 teams in Kiev that they had evidence of 10 additional tanks and sealed trucks coming over the border close to the eastern city of Lugansk since Thursday.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki noted that most of the equipment being gathered in southwest Russia was no longer used by its military.
“We believe that Russia may soon provide this equipment to separatist fighters,” Psaki said.
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