MOSCOW – The weeklong cease-fire declared by the Ukrainian president should be extended and accompanied by talks between the government and the rebels, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday.
The seven-day cease-fire Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced Friday wasn’t enough, Putin said on a trip to Vienna, adding that the end of hostilities must be accompanied by talks.
Putin’s statement came as a Ukrainian government spokesman said that a military helicopter was shot down in Slovyansk despite assurances from pro-Russian rebels on Monday that they would respect the cease-fire.
Nine people were killed as the Mi-8 helicopter was shot down over a rebel-controlled area, said Vladislav Seleznev, a spokesman for the Ukrainian operation against the insurgents in the east.
Putin emphasized the need to respect the cease-fire, and claimed that the Ukrainian forces broke it by launching a raid in Slovyansk, a city in eastern Ukraine that has been the epicenter of fighting during the two-month insurgency.
Earlier Tuesday, the Russian president had asked parliament to cancel a resolution sanctioning the use of military force in Ukraine, a move his Ukrainian counterpart heralded as a “practical step” toward bringing peace to a region roiled by a separatist insurgency.
A statement on the Kremlin website announced that Putin had asked the head of Russia’s upper house of parliament to cancel his March 1 request authorizing the use of force on Ukrainian territory. The pliant chamber is expected to quickly rubber-stamp the move Wednesday.
Putin needs to show his support for Poroshenko’s peace plan ahead of the European Union’ summit on Friday to avoid further Western sanctions. The EU has warned it could introduce the next round of sanctions that would target entire sectors of the Russian economy if it fails to help de-escalate the crisis.
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The Brussels-based ambassador of one EU member state, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said Russia’s actions appear finely calibrated to just fall shy of the threshold that would trigger retaliatory economic measures by the trade bloc that would really bite.
At the same time, Putin may feel that he no longer needs to maintain the threat of an invasion to protect Moscow’s interests in Ukraine.
Poroshenko’s peace plan contains promises of decentralization and guarantees for protection of rights of Russian speakers, which Russia has demanded from the start of the crisis.
It wants Ukraine to give broad powers to its regions to allow Russian-speaking eastern provinces to maintain close ties with Moscow. A strong regional autonomy would also allow them to effectively block the nation’s accession into NATO, which is the Kremlin’s worst nightmare.
Putin’s request to parliament for the use of military in Ukraine came days after Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was chased from power following months of street protests. Russia sent troops that quickly overran Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, setting the stage for its annexation in March after a hastily called referendum.
In April, a mutiny erupted in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents seized official buildings, declared their regions independent and fought government troops.
Russia deployed an estimated 40,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, sparking fears of an imminent invasion in Ukraine and in the West.
Putin pulled back the bulk of the troops in late May, but NATO accused Russia of resuming the buildup this month with a few thousand additional troops sent to the border. The U.S. and NATO also accused Russia of supporting the rebellion with troops and weapons, but Moscow has denied that, saying that Russian citizens who joined the rebellion did so of their own will.
Putin welcomed Poroshenko’s peace plan and his move to cancel the parliament resolution sends a strong signal to pro-Russian insurgents that they need to comply with it.
The Russian President was visiting Vienna on Tuesday, where he was meeting with the Austrian leadership and officials from the Organization for Security and Co-operation who have helped broker peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow.
The OSCE chairman, Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, said in Vienna that “we need a cease-fire which lasts longer than five days to be able to start real dialogue,” the Austria Press Agency reported. The current ceasefire is due to expire on Friday evening.
Burkhalter, who planned to meet with Putin later on Tuesday, said the OSCE was open to the idea of observing the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine along with Russian representatives but did not clarify exactly who would partake in any observation missions. He stressed the need for “practical support from Russia to see true progress” in Ukraine.
Austria was to host a section of the prospective South Stream gas pipeline, which was initiated by Russia to export gas to Europe circumventing Ukraine. The EU has moved to suspend the project, and Putin may hope to make a deal with the West on reviving the project, which is a top priority for Russia amid a dispute with Ukraine over gas prices and debts.
The cease-fire in east Ukraine appeared to be largely holding Tuesday, as soldiers at a checkpoint in Dovhenke, 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk, were seen relaxing near the barricades or engaging in shooting drills.
Vladislav Seleznev, the spokesman for Ukraine’s operation in the east, said rebel forces attacked a Ukrainian base north of Slovyansk late Monday but there had been no fighting overnight. Troops at another government-controlled checkpoint just outside of Slovyansk, however, said they had come under sniper attack Tuesday morning.
Russian markets, which have been rattled by the crisis in Ukraine and a host of sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union against Russian officials and businessmen, soared 1.6 per cent Tuesday after the news, reaching a four-month high.
AP reporters Nataliya Vasliyeva and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Balint Szlanko in Dovhenke, Ukraine, and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.
© The Canadian Press, 2014