WAR AND PEACE
Putin pushes a plan to end fighting. It would require Ukraine concessions.
MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday announced a plan to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine that would entrench rebel gains there and hand a significant defeat to Ukrainian leaders who have sought to regain full control of the territory of their nation.
Putin said that he and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had agreed on the broad outlines of a seven-point peace settlement that would at least temporarily freeze the conflict on the ground. He specified no major concessions for the rebels and instead insisted on a large-scale Ukrainian military pullback and the introduction of international monitors to ensure that fighting did not resume.
Poroshenko did not specifically address the "Putin plan," as it was dubbed by the Kremlin, but he said the time had come to end the conflict.
"The first task is peace," Poroshenko said in a statement. "Today at 5 a.m. I spoke to President Putin about how we can stop this horrible process. There is no denying that people must stop dying."
Both leaders said they hoped peace talks could start Friday.
The apparent concessions to Russia dealt a further blow to Ukrainian aspirations to escape the orbit of the nation to which they were once joined as part of the Soviet Union. Months of pro-European protests in Kiev ended in February with the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. Russia quickly moved to annex the Crimean Peninsula in response. The Europe-friendly Poroshenko was elected in a landslide victory in May, but his popularity has been damaged by the grueling conflict in the east, where Russian-backed rebels have claimed important swaths of territory.
Just weeks ago, Ukrainian forces appeared close to defeating the rebels. But since early last week, the rebels have made rapid, renewed strides against the Ukrainian military after Kiev reported a large-scale Russian incursion into southeastern Ukraine. The Kremlin denies aiding the rebels, although rebel leaders have said Russian soldiers were using vacation time to fight on their side.
Putin told reporters during a visit to Mongolia that he believed he and Poroshenko were in agreement.
"Our views . . . are very close," Putin told reporters in remarks that were broadcast on Russian state television. He said he had sketched out a peace plan on his flight from Russia.
"The warring parties should immediately coordinate and do the following things together," Putin said. "The first thing is for the armed forces and insurgents of the south-east of Ukraine to stop active advancing in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
"Second is for the Ukrainian military to withdraw their troops at a safe distance that will make artillery and other strikes on populated areas impossible," he added.
Putin also urged an unconditional exchange of prisoners and said he expected a final agreement between Kiev and the rebels to be reached Friday at peace talks in Minsk, Belarus.
But Putin's demands could be difficult for Poroshenko to meet. The Ukrainian leader is under heavy domestic pressure not to surrender Ukraine's industrial heartland to the rebels.
In a measure of the political unpopularity of any deal with Russia, even a Poroshenko ally Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Wednesday that Putin's plan would "destroy Ukraine and bring back the Soviet Union."
Putin specified no conditions regarding the political status of the territories seized by rebels, and his spokesman later said the proposals were not "dogma" and were intended only as a starting point to achieve an immediate halt to bloodshed.
But the plan would leave rebels in control of the key cities they have seized while a final settlement was discussed, thus freezing the conflict in a manner similar to what has happened in other disputed territories, such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova. Those contested regions are administered by pro-Russia groups, but have scant international recognition.
An entrenched territorial dispute would make it far more difficult for Ukraine to join the NATO defense alliance. Blocking Ukraine from NATO would be a key Russian goal in the conflict. Alliance leaders plan to meet starting Thursday in Wales at a summit that will largely focus on the fighting in Ukraine.
CRISIS IN UKRAINE
President Obama condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine and pledged that NATO will protect allies who fear they will be Moscow's next target.
The Pentagon announced that 200 U.S. soldiers would participate in an exercise in western Ukraine starting next week. Though largely a symbolic move, it would mark the first presence of American ground troops in Ukraine since the crisis began.
Vladimir Putin spelled out a seven-point plan for ending hostilities in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office said he was indeed working with Putin on a cease-fire. But Western leaders noted it wasn't the first attempt to halt the deadly conflict.
- Associated Press
This article contains information from the Associated Press.