Tuesday, January 27, 2015

No agreement as Ukraine president meets with Putin

A pro-Russian rebel on the move in a market in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. Of any peace plan, Putin said: "This is not our business. This is Ukraine´s business."
A pro-Russian rebel on the move in a market in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. Of any peace plan, Putin said: "This is not our business. This is Ukraine's business." MSTISLAV CHERNOV / AP
A pro-Russian rebel on the move in a market in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. Of any peace plan, Putin said: "This is not our business. This is Ukraine´s business." Gallery: No agreement as Ukraine president meets with Putin
MINSK, Belarus - Ukraine's leader said Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin accepted the principles of a peace plan for Ukraine, but the Russian leader insisted that only Kiev could reach a cease-fire deal with the pro-Moscow separatists.

Following meetings in Minsk, Belarus, between Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that included a one-on-one session that stretched into the night, there was no indication of a quick end to the fighting that has engulfed eastern Ukraine.

"This is not our business," Putin said of any cease-fire plan. "This is Ukraine's business."

Russia "can only help to create an atmosphere of trust for this important and necessary process," Putin said. "We in Russia cannot talk about any conditions for the cease-fire, about any agreements between Kiev [with] Donetsk [and]Luhansk," the two rebel regions.

Although Poroshenko told reporters that he had secured support for a peace plan from leaders who attended the summit and that Putin called the sessions "overall positive," the first substantial encounter between the two leaders did not produce a breakthrough in efforts to end the fighting.

If anything, there were signs of spreading violence. For the last two days, heavy shelling hit an area of southeast Ukraine that had escaped the intense fighting of recent weeks, and Ukrainian officials said the pro-Russia separatists it has been battling were aiming to open a new front.

The meeting in the Belarusian capital also came on the same day that Ukraine said it captured 10 Russian soldiers who had come over the border.

Putin did not directly address the allegation, but appeared to tacitly recognize it and suggested that the soldiers simply had become lost.

"I haven't received a report from the defense ministry and the general staff yet," Putin said, "but the first thing I have heard is that that they were patrolling the border and may have found themselves on the Ukrainian territory."

Shortly after becoming president in June, Poroshenko put forth a peace plan that included amnesty for those not accused of serious crimes and called for some decentralization of power to the region.

Early Wednesday, he said, "I can say that the logic of this peaceful plan was finally supported by all, without exclusion, of the heads of state," according to the Interfax news agency.

However, Putin said there was no specific talk about implementing a cease-fire because Russia was not a party to the conflict. Moscow is accused by Kiev and the West of arming and supporting the rebels - a charge the Kremlin denies - and it is not clear how much it is willing or able to try to pressure them into ending the fighting.

Besides their face-to-face talks, Putin and Poroshenko also met Tuesday with the presidents of Kazakhstan and Belarus and top European Union officials. The presence of the other two presidents highlighted one of the difficult issues of Ukraine-Russia tensions: Their countries are part of a trade bloc with Russia, and Moscow fears that Poroshenko's determination to pursue closer ties with the EU will hurt Russia's economy.

Controversy over whether Ukraine would join the trade bloc was at the heart of the events that set off Ukraine's crisis. Former president Viktor Yanukovych's decision to pursue closer ties with Russia set off protests that eventually drove him from power. After his ouster, the Crimean peninsula, overwhelmingly ethnic Russian, was annexed by Moscow in March, and the next month saw the beginning of a separatist rebellion in two eastern Ukrainian regions that are heavily ethnic Russian.

The battle to put down that rebellion, which Kiev and Western countries say gets equipment, fighters, and other support from Russia, has left more than 2,000 civilians and 700 Ukrainian troops dead.

In his opening statement at Tuesday's meetings, Putin argued that Ukraine's decision to sign an association agreement with the 28-nation EU would lead to huge losses for Russia, which would then be forced to protect its economy.

Putin also said the conflict "could not be solved by further escalation of the military scenario without taking into account the vital interests of the southeast of the country and without a peaceful dialogue of its representatives."

Ukraine wants the rebels to hand back the territory they have captured in eastern Ukraine, while Putin wants to retain some sort of leverage over the mostly Russian-speaking region so Ukraine does not join NATO or the European Union.

Russia has called frequently for Ukraine to federalize - devolving wide powers to the regions from the central government in Kiev. Poroshenko has resisted that move, but he could agree to give the regions some expanded powers. Poroshenko also has spoken against holding a referendum on Ukraine's joining NATO.

Putin has so far ignored requests from the rebels to be annexed by Russia, unlike in March. But Associated Press journalists on the border have seen the rebels with a wide range of unmarked military equipment - including tanks, missile launchers, and armored personnel carriers - and have seen many Russians among the fighters.

Ukraine's anti-rebel operation said on its Facebook page that 10 soldiers from a Russian paratrooper division were captured Monday around Amvrosiivka, a town near the Russian border. The posting included videos of five of the men.

Nataliya Vasilyeva and Peter Leonard Associated Press
Also on Philly.com
Stay Connected