The conflict in Ukraine, now in its fourth month, could see an end soon as Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko announced a ceasefire agreement on Wednesday.
Poroshenko’s office said the agreement was reached in a telephone exchange that was preceded by a few hours by United States President Barack Obama’s arrival in former Soviet Estonia – a new Nato member nation seeking Western protection from an increasingly belligerent Kremlin.
Leaders from the 28-nation Western military bloc are due to agree in Wales on Thursday on the creation of a 4 000-strong force that could be deployed within two days to meet any perceived Russian military movements in Eastern Europe. Poroshenko’s stunning announcement came more than four months into conflict that has claimed more than 2 600 lives and plunged relations between Moscow and Kiev’s Western allies to its lowest since the Cold War.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Poroshenko held a telephone exchange “that resulted in an agreement for a permanent ceasefire in Donbass [eastern Ukraine],” the Ukrainian president’s office said in a statement.
“An understanding was reached concerning steps that will help to establish peace,” the statement said.
But it was not immediately clear if rebel commanders – a loose band of mostly Russian-speakers who have no single leader and have been making sweeping advances in recent days – were ready to either comply or disband.
The declared end to hostilities appeared to confirm Western allegations that Putin had a direct hand in the conflict, even though he has denied any role and claimed he was in no position to negotiate on the rebels’ behalf.
Russia, however, openly backs their drive for some form of independence from the pro-Western Ukrainian leaders who rose to power in Kiev after the February ousting of a Moscow-backed administration.
On Wednesday the Kremlin said that Putin and Poroshenko had “exchanged opinions” about the crisis and gave no indication that a breakthrough had been reached.
“The views of the presidents of the two countries about possible ways out of this difficult crisis overlap to a considerable degree,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies.
The Kremlin also said that, “Russia supports [the] ceasefire but is not party to agreement.”
Unbending NATO support
Obama arrived on Wednesday in Estonia to deliver an emblematic message of unbending Nato support for new members from ex-Soviet nations rattled by Russia’s perceived actions in Ukraine.
The hostile barbs being traded by Moscow and the West in advance of Obama’s visit to Europe hardly heralded the promise of a potentially major agreement being reached on Ukraine.
Obama’s jumbo jet landed in the tiny Baltic nation – ruled for decades by Moscow and still completely reliant on Russian gas – a day after the Kremlin declared Nato a “threat” over its plans to boost defences in Eastern Europe.
The Western military alliance has published satellite images purporting to show more than 1 000 Russian troops and heavy equipment moving into Ukraine’s eastern districts to help separatist fighters push back government forces and establish a ground link with Crimea – a Black Sea peninsula Russia seized from Ukraine in March.
“Nato has played a leading role and produced ample evidence to indicate that Russia has intervened in ways that grossly violate the territorial integrity of the independent nation of Ukraine,” said White House spokesperson Josh Earnest.
Putin set warning bells ringing across Eastern Europe even further by telling European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, in a private exchange leaked to the press, that he could capture Kiev in two weeks.
The Kremlin’s top foreign policy adviser said Putin’s comments were taken out of context and accused Barroso of breaking diplomatic etiquette by disclosing details of the conversation. Putin had wanted Kiev to grant “statehood” to the heavily ‘Russified’ eastern districts of Lugansk and Donetsk.
Poroshenko however had won elections in May on a vow to quickly finish off the uprising and reunify his culturally-splintered states.
But his negotiating position with both Russia and the insurgents had weakened dramatically in recent days. The government’s forces have in some cases simply abandoned their equipment and left behind old tanks as they cede huge swathes of territory that they had clawed back from the militants at a great cost since April.
Battle for Donetsk
The rebels have claimed capturing hundreds of demoralised Ukrainian soldiers in their recent advance into the 500 000-strong eastern stronghold of Lugansk and the southern and eastern districts of its larger separatist counterpart, Donetsk.
The daily shelling of Donetsk – a city of nearly one million that has seen hundreds of thousands flee – has ended due to the Ukrainian forces’ withdrawal from positions around the strategic city.
Separatist commanders have most recently set their sights on winning back control of the Donetsk airport. They shocked Kiev by pushing government troops from its Lugansk counterpart – the site of both a military airfield and a civilian terminal – on Monday. – AFP