Slavyansk (Ukraine) (AFP) – Ukraine’s new Western-backed leader sought urgent talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday after separatist rebels shot down an army helicopter despite orders from their own commander to observe a fragile truce.
The death of nine servicemen outside the pro-Russian stronghold city of Slavyansk and loss of two other soldiers in militia attacks prompted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to threaten to unleash a powerful new military campaign in the industrial east.
An AFP team in Slavyansk heard a wave of shelling being launched by Ukrainian forces who have effectively surrounded the devastated city of nearly 120,000 on Wednesday morning.
Their push was met with extended rounds of anti-aircraft and heavy machine gun fire that echoed through deserted city streets.
“This is the calm before the storm that begins once the ceasefire ends,” said a 42-year-old rebel who is simply known to his unit as “Oleksandr the Soldier”.
Poroshenko’s warning dealt a crushing blow to hopes of the sides mediating an end to 11 weeks of fighting that has killed more than 435 people and brought the ex-Soviet nation to the brink of collapse.
Kiev’s temporary ceasefire was picked up by separatist commanders on Monday but was due to expire on Friday morning after just one round of inconclusive and indirect talks.
Putin urged both sides to extend the truce and further asked senators to revoke his March 1 authorization to invade his western neighbor in a self-proclaimed bid to “protect” ethnic Russians from the nationalists now in power in Kiev.
Russia’s rubber-stamp upper chamber approved Putin’s request on Wednesday in a 153-1 vote.
But Kiev and Washington still accuse Putin of covertly arming the rebels in retaliation for the February ouster of a pro-Russian administration that abruptly ditched an historic EU agreement and preferred closer ties with Moscow instead.
Poroshenko will sign the final chapters of that pact in Brussels on Friday despite the strong likelihood that Russia will follow up a cut in gas deliveries it imposed on June 16 with punishing new trade restrictions.
The Ukrainian leader now hopes that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande will join him on a conference call to Putin that could decide the immediate faith of diplomatic efforts to resolve Ukraine’s worst crisis since its independence in 1991.
The crumbling hopes for a quick solution will also confront NATO foreign ministers when they huddle in Brussels amid pleas from ex-Soviet satellite nations for the alliance to beef up its military presence along Russia’s western frontier.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen noted entering the meeting that the alliance intended to “review our relations with Russia and decide what to do next.”
“I regret to say that we see no signs that Russia is respecting its international commitments,” NATO’s top civilian official said.
The meeting will also see U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry conduct his first bilateral talks with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin — a veteran diplomat who had represented Poroshenko in closed door negotiations with Russia that resulted in Kiev’s decision to call a temporary truce.
The current negotiations are being led by an unusual assortment of figures who include former Ukrainian leader Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Medvedchuk — the one-time chief of staff of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych who is currently on a U.S. sanctions list.
He unofficially represents the separatist cause but is seen to be so close to Putin that his daughter is rumored to have the Russian strongman as a godfather.
Some analysts believe Putin trusts Medvedchuk enough to believe he will lead negotiations that result in the Kremlin preserving its influence over eastern Ukraine.
But the Kremlin chief would also like to be seen as a proponent of dialogue to avoid painful economic sanctions that both Washington and the European Union have threatened to unleash unless Putin took immediate steps to promote peace.
The White House said it was encouraged both by Putin’s latest steps and the rebels’ acceptance of Poroshenko’s temporary ceasefire.
But the Mi-8 helicopter’s downing on Tuesday underscores the limited control both Russia and senior rebel leaders have over some militia units that are apparently operating according to their own rules on the battlefield.
“Clearly, not surprisingly, the separatists all are not on the same page,” US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
AFP Photo/John MacDougall