By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times
An understanding on steps to a cease-fire in the volatile regions of southeast Ukraine has been reached between Kiev and Moscow, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Wednesday.
During a telephone conversation between Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, a “mutual understanding was reached in regard to steps to be taken to find a peaceful resolution,” according to a statement posted on Ukraine’s official presidential website.
Details of the understanding regarding a potential cease-fire were not provided.
An earlier statement from Poroshenko’s office said that he and Putin had agreed to a “lasting cease-fire,” but that language was retracted and Russian officials, maintaining their stance that Moscow is not a party to the conflict, denied that any such deal existed.
“Russia cannot physically agree on a cease-fire, as it is not a side in the conflict,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.
Poroshenko’s announcement comes months after a bloody conflict in the industrial Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, which Kremlin-controlled mass media in Russia have branded as a civil war between a “Kiev junta” and local armed protesters seeking more independence from Kiev and closer ties with Russia.
Ukrainian and Western officials have argued from the beginning that the confrontation was instigated by Russia, which they charge has sent armed groups into eastern Ukraine as early as April and supplied them with arms and military hardware. Late last week, Lukashenko accused Russia of a full-scale “military invasion” as hundreds of Russian soldiers were allegedly killed in the fighting in Ukraine and some were taken prisoner and presented to media representatives in Kiev.
Putin said publicly last week that the Russian POWs in Ukraine simply got confused and “lost their way in the border region” between the two countries.
Last week, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization released satellite images of Russian tanks and other armored vehicles rolling into separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine.
The direct Russian military involvement marked a qualitatively new stage in the 5-month-old conflict, which has claimed thousands of lives, devastated the infrastructure in the region and caused hundreds of thousands of residents to flee their homes for safer regions in Ukraine and Russia.
More than 800 Ukrainian servicemen have died in the fighting and over 3,000 have been wounded, defense officials said last week. Russia remains silent about its casualties in Ukraine, burying its dead soldiers and treating its injured in complete secrecy, according to media reports.
A cease-fire, if it comes about, is badly needed by both the Kremlin and Kiev, Ukrainian defense analyst Yuri Butusov said.
“Putin keeps escalating the conflict but he does that in stages, launching a series of attacks and taking time to watch out for world and Kiev reaction,” Butusov, editor of Tsenzor.net, a popular online publication, said in an interview. “The direct military invasion he ordered last week saved the separatist forces in the Doentsk and Luhansk regions from the looming total defeat but the situation now looks like a pyrrhic victory for the Kremlin as the Kremlin clearly presents itself as an aggressor who doesn’t know what to do with his gains.”
With the infrastructure, administration, communal services and social life in the affected regions totally disrupted, Putin appears now to be pondering whether the Kremlin has to take care of all those problems and invest billions of dollars into the resumption of normal life, Butusov said.
Kiev needs a cease-fire deal to regroup its forces, draw lessons from its recent defeats, reorganize its supplies and form necessary reserves, he said.
A cease-fire deal may not last long, warned Alexei Dmitrashkovsky, spokesman for Ukraine’s anti-terrorist operation.
“We can’t trust the Russians and we don’t have any guarantees that their terrorist groups will not stage the provocations they did many times before,” Dmitrashkovsky said in an interview. “Last week, we reached an agreement on the so-called humanitarian corridor for our encircled troops to withdraw from (the town of) Illovaysk, but as dozens of our embattled troops, many of them seriously wounded, entered that corridor, they were simply butchered by terrorists who opened fire without warning.”
After Poroshenko’s announcement Wednesday, a Ukrainian military checkpoint near the town of Kramatorsk came under fire, Dmitrashkovsky said. No casualties were reported.
AFP Photo/Segei Bondarenko