MOSCOW - Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists appeared close to signing a deal to end four months of fighting, even as Ukraine's leader met yesterday with President Barack Obama and other Nato leaders in Wales.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he was ready to order a ceasefire in the east today if a peace deal was signed at talks in Minsk, Belarus. The rebels also said they were ready to declare a truce if an agreement with Ukraine was reached on a political settlement for the mostly Russian-speaking region.
Watch: Poroshenko says Ukraine ceasefire plan to be signed Friday
Poroshenko discussed the outlines of a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, and they both voiced optimism about reaching an agreement in Minsk.
Meanwhile yesterday, Nato leaders gathered for a two-day summit at a golf resort in southern Wales.
Before the official proceedings began, Poroshenko attended a meeting with Obama and the leaders of Nato's four major European powers: British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Later in the day, Poroshenko was to meet with the heads of state and government from all 28 Nato member states. Nato officials have made clear that membership for Ukraine is not in the cards anytime soon, but the alliance is expected to express support for Poroshenko's government and announce an increase in nonlethal aid for Ukraine's military.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that statements by Ukrainian officials saying Ukraine would be seeking to join Nato were "a blatant attempt to derail all the efforts" to seek a peaceful solution to the fighting.
Pro-Russian separatists have been fighting government troops in eastern Ukraine since April in a conflict that the UN estimates has killed nearly 2,600 people.
Nato says at least 1,000 Russian fighters are helping the rebels in Ukraine. Rebels have made substantial advances against Ukrainian forces over the past two weeks, including opening a new front along the Sea of Azov coast.
That offensive has raised concerns the rebels are aiming to seize control of Mariupol, a major port of about 500,000 people, in order to secure a land corridor between Russia and Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in March.
Specifics of the hoped-for peace deal have yet to be finalised. Putin has suggested that rebels halt their offensive while the Ukrainian government pulls its forces back from shelling residential areas.
Poroshenko, in his turn, called for the withdrawal of foreign troops - a diplomatic reference to Russian forces - as well as establishing a buffer zone on the border and releasing all Ukrainian prisoners held in Russia. Both sides expressed readiness for international monitoring of the truce and prisoners' exchange.
The conflict has taken a heavy toll on Ukraine's army. National Security Council spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko said yesterday that 837 Ukrainian servicemen had been killed and another 3,044 wounded since the fighting began.