Kiev: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has pledged greater autonomy for the separatist east but says that would not compromise Kiev’s control.
He has also said that 70 per cent of Russian forces had left the east, greatly improving security in the region and enhancing chances of a fragile truce.
The pro-Western leader’s comments on Wednesday were soon followed by a European Union decision to extend by another day a heated debate on unleashing new sanctions aimed at punishing Russia over what the West says is Moscow’s military aggression in Ukraine.
Mr Poroshenko said Friday’s ceasefire – the first backed by both Kiev and Moscow since the conflict erupted five months ago – had dramatically improved security in the country’s war-ravaged industrial rustbelt.
“According to the latest information I received from our intelligence headquarters, 70 per cent of Russia’s forces have been removed,” the presidency website quoted Mr Poroshenko as telling a cabinet meeting.
“This gives us hope that there are good prospects for the peace initiative.”
Moscow denies having deployed troops or weaponry across the border, and President Vladimir Putin dismissed the NATO claims as a reckless attempt to “revive” the Cold War-era security bloc.
Mr Poroshenko also waded into explosive political territory by promising to submit a bill to parliament granting parts of the east temporary self-rule.
He stressed this did not mean rebel-held territories were slipping away from Kiev’s control.
“Ukraine will not make any concessions on issues of its territorial integrity,” he said.
The Kremlin has long sought to turn Ukraine into a loose federation in which the largely Russian-speaking Donetsk and Lugansk regions establish their own trade and diplomatic relations with Moscow.
Andrei Purgin, the number two in the separatist leadership of Donetsk, said the vital industrial hub would seek outright independence in what promised to be arduous peace talks aimed at putting a durable end to a conflict that had frayed East-West ties.
“We are not considering remaining part of Ukraine,” he said.
The truce was signed after five months of warfare that killed more than 2700 people and forced at least half a million from their homes.
Yet both sides have reported sporadic violations. Kiev said the lives of eight Ukrainian servicemen and one civilian had been lost since Friday.
NATO said last month Russia had funnelled in at least 1000 elite troops and heavy weapons to support a rebel counter-surge that led to the quick surrender of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and dramatically reversed their earlier gains.
But Mr Putin accused the US-led military bloc of making up the charges to support its decision to deploy a new force in eastern Europe and encroach on Russia’s western frontier.
“The crisis in Ukraine, which was basically provoked and created by some of our Western partners, is now being used to revive this military bloc [NATO],” Mr Putin was quoted as saying by Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency.
The EU decision to suspend debate until Thursday came after some members – wary of further economic reprisals by Russia – called for the measures to be imposed only on condition they could be scaled back quickly if the peace deal held.
Diplomats said the latest measures would restrict access to European capital markets for Russian state giants such as oil producer Rosneft and the tank maker Uralvagonzavod.
But Russian parliament speaker Sergei Naryshkin warned starkly: “As we have honestly warned our partners, the response will definitely come.”