Ukraine’s new Western-backed president faced pressure on Tuesday to negotiate with top rebel commanders after a surprise turnabout in which the pro-Russian insurgents agreed to a truce and talks on ending their uprising.
In an unexpected announcement that came after talks with Russia’s ambassador to Kiev and an OSCE envoy, the head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic on Monday said he was dropping his demand for an immediate Ukrainian troop withdrawal.
“We hope that during the period in which both sides halt fire, we will be able to agree and begin consultations about holding negotiations about a peaceful settlement to the conflict,” Oleksandr Borodai said, adding that his forces would hold their fire until Friday morning.
The move put pressure on Petro Poroshenko because the 48-year-old chocolate tycoon had previously ruled out negotiating with rebels directly implicated in the violence that has left nearly 400 dead in 11 weeks in Ukraine’s Russified rustbelt.
Poroshenko ordered a one-week unilateral ceasefire last Friday that was accompanied by a blueprint for ending the 11-week uprising threatening the very survival of his ex-Soviet state.
But he also said that he would never talk directly to rebels with “blood on their hands” or those implicated in “murder and torture.”
Poroshenko did not spell out whom he was excluding from the negotiations. But his comments were interpreted in Moscow to imply that he was referring specifically to rebel commanders such as Borodai.
The Russian-border regions of Donetsk and Lugansk – home to seven million people as well as Ukraine’s crucial coal and metals industry – were overrun in early April by gunmen who proclaimed their independence from Kiev the following month.
The rebel commanders in Lugansk have not yet publically joined Borodai’s peace overture and the Ukranian military reported more violence overnight.
The spokesman of Ukraine’s “anti-terrorist operation” said gunmen continued attacking soldiers in the Donetsk rebel stronghold city of Slavyansk and a nearby town.
“Ukrainian servicemen suffered no losses,” spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov wrote in a Facebook post.
Western sanctions threat
Poroshenko has been pressing world leaders to follow through with their threat to unleash devastating economic sanctions against Russia should President Vladimir Putin fail to immediately end his perceived military and diplomatic backing for the insurgents.
The new Kiev leader will also sign a historic EU trade pact on Friday that crowns his May 25 election promise to make the decisive move westward -- one strongly resisted by Russia and that lies at the heart of the current crisis.
Poroshenko’s office said he told US Vice President Joe Biden on Monday night that the rebels’ ceasefire “must be accompanied by the release of hostages and a sealing of the border to halt the entry into Ukraine from Russia of mercenaries, weapons and drugs.”
“Poroshenko stressed that now, Russia must demonstrate real steps forward,” his office said in a statement.
The European Union warned after a meeting of foreign ministers on Monday that it expected to see action from Putin “within days.”
The White House said US President Barack Obama also told Putin by phone on Monday that Russia would face new sanctions if it failed to stop the flow of weapons into Ukraine.
“Russia will face additional costs if we do not see concrete actions to de-escalate the situation,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
Some analysts believe that Putin is still smarting from the sudden loss of an ally in Kiev – ousted by pro-EU protesters in February – who could have brought Ukraine into a new alliance of post-Soviet nations being assembled by the Kremlin.
The subsequent flow of heavy weapons and gunmen across the porous border into eastern Ukraine seem to indicate that the Kremlin is – at the very least – turning a blind eye to local Russian officials and military commanders’ efforts to support the insurgents.
And Putin’s order on Saturday for Russian forces from the Volga to western Siberia to conduct snap military drills also suggests that he wants to keep Poroshenko’s government unsettled in order to maintain influence in eastern Ukraine.
But the Kremlin chief seems equally determined to avoid steps that could trigger broader sanctions and deal a further blow to a Russian economy that is already teetering on the edge of a recession.