Ukraine and Russia moved closer to a sustainable truce in talks brokered by Germany and France after President Petro Poroshenko resumed his offensive against pro-Russian rebels inspired by Crimea’s secession.
The bloodshed in eastern Ukraine has reached a “dramatic climax” in the past few days, prompting the four countries to pledge to work for a comprehensive cease-fire in another round of talks by July 5, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after meeting his counterparts in Berlin late yesterday. “It is a first and important step toward a mutual cease-fire,” Steinmeier told reporters.
The four countries agreed to “use their influence on the concerned parties” to end the fighting and invite the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to deploy observers to monitor the checkpoints along the Russia-Ukraine border, according to a joint statement.
With the European Union and the U.S. considering expanding sanctions against Russia, Poroshenko ended the truce early yesterday, blaming pro-Russian insurgents for more than 100 violations in 10 days. The expiration of the cease-fire renews a conflict that has already claimed hundreds of lives. Ukraine and its U.S. and European allies say the separatists in the mainly Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are backed by Putin’s government, which Russia denies.
“We are trying as best we can to achieve a sustainable cease-fire,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in the German capital. The agreement is “better late than never,” Lavrov told reporters.
Ukraine’s acting defense minister, Mykhaylo Koval, said earlier yesterday that there’s increasing evidence that Russia is tightening security along its frontier to prevent insurgents from entering Russia.
“We think this is being done to prevent exports from Ukraine of all the negative things going on in our anti-terrorist operation zone,” Koval told reporters in Kiev. Calls to the office phone of Vladimir Anikin, a spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry, weren’t answered outside regular business hours.
In the Donetsk region, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting, at least 279 people have been killed since mid-April, when government forces began their offensive, the deputy head of the regional administration, Elena Petryaeva, was cited as saying by the Dzerkalo Tyzhnya newspaper. That includes about 160 civilians, 26 soldiers and 93 unidentified men, the newspaper said.
Separatists mounted 19 attacks overnight, targeting convoys, checkpoints and a military base in the Luhansk region, which borders Donetsk, said Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.
One Ukrainian soldier was killed and four were wounded in a mortar attack at the Novoazovsk checkpoint on the Russian frontier in the Donetsk region, the State Border Service said. Four guards were wounded by gunfire.
Insurgents also opened fire on a Sukhoi Su-24 fighter-bomber over the Donetsk region, damaging the plane, according to Lysenko. No one was hurt and the plane landed safely after destroying the missile system used to attack it.
Rebels also seized a compressor station in the Luhansk region on a pipeline pumping gas to Europe, Lysenko of the Security Council said in televised remarks, without elaborating.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said before the Ukraine talks that Russia risks further sanctions from the EU if Russia doesn’t do more to rein-in the pro-Russian militias.
“We won’t ease off,” Merkel told reporters after meeting with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen before the foreign ministers started talks in the German capital.
Rasmussen said that “Russia’s actions threaten the peace and security we have built after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
EU sanctions were left untouched this week after representatives of the 28 governments deemed Russia had made some progress in meeting de-escalation targets, three officials said. The bloc will now look into expanding a list of 61 people subject to asset freezes and travel bans, the officials said in Brussels. The EU threatened Russia with deeper sanctions last week if it didn’t rein in the rebels.
The bloc’s leaders are monitoring developments and “are committed to reconvene at any time for further significant restrictive measures,” EU President Herman Van Rompuy told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. He said the bloc is using existing sanctions and the threat of more to promote talks to resolve the conflict.
EU states are considering halting financing for projects in Russia made by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank, according to two EU government officials, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the plans.
Russia is the biggest recipient of project-financing by the London-based EBRD, receiving 1.8 billion euros ($2.5 billion) in investments last year. Recent projects include a loan for pipeline valves; buying a minority stake in a property developer; and a loan to a hypermarket chain. The EIB signed loans worth about $1.4 billion in Russia in 2013.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a former chairman of OAO Gazprom, the country’s gas-export monopoly said Ukraine is heading for a “full-fledged” gas crisis in the coming months because it’s not paying for deliveries and its debt is already “enormous.”
Poroshenko made a “dramatic” mistake by ending the cease-fire, Medvedev said on his Facebook page. This will “bring about new casualities” that he’s “personally responsible for,” Medvedev said.
The Ukrainian president will consider a truce only after his conditions are met in full, including the release of all hostages and establishing international monitors on the border with Russia, Valeriy Chalyi, the deputy chief of Poroshenko’s staff, said on the president’s website.
“The president did everything to give those who want peace in the country a chance,” Chalyi said. “Unfortunately, his call was not adequately heeded.”