KIEV, UKRAINE — European-backed peace talks on ending Ukraine’s crisis began with little promise Wednesday when pro-Russian insurgents – who weren’t even invited to the session – demanded that the Kiev government recognize their sovereignty.
The “road map” put forth by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe calls for national dialogue as a first step toward resolving the escalating tensions, in which the insurgents have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and declared independence, while government forces have mounted limited offensives to retake control of the region.
But instead of a dialogue, the day was more a case of competing monologues, with the two sides as far apart as ever.
Denis Pushilin, a leader of the insurgency in the city of Donetsk, said his faction was not invited to the government-organized roundtable in Kiev, and that the “talks with Kiev authorities could only be about one thing: the recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republic.”
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said in his opening remarks at the Kiev talks that authorities were “ready for a dialogue,” but insisted they will not talk to the pro-Russia gunmen, which the government has denounced as “terrorists.”
“Those armed people who are trying to wage a war on their own country, those who are with arms in their hands trying to dictate their will, or rather the will of another country – we will use legal procedures against them and they will face justice,” he said.
The talks lasted 2 1/2 hours and ended inconclusively, with only a vague plan to meet again in a few days.
Ukraine’s crisis began with mass protests last winter against Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, who eventually fled to Russia in late February amid rising bloodshed, including demonstrators killed by snipers alleged to have been police.
The protests included a strong faction of Ukrainian nationalists. Predominantly Russian-speaking regions of eastern and southern Ukraine denounced the government in Kiev that took over as a junta bent on repressing them.
The Black Sea peninsula of Crimea voted to secede in March and was quickly annexed by Russia. Armed men seized police stations and other buildings in a large swath of eastern Ukraine.
Kiev and the West alleged Russia was fomenting the unrest, which Moscow denies. The U.S. and European Union has imposed sanctions on Russia in the crisis.
Ukraine’s economy was in perilous shape even before the protests, and months of constant disorder have raised fears of severe suffering.
Rinat Akhmetov, regarded as Ukraine’s richest industrialist and an influential figure in the Donetsk region, made a rare public statement Wednesday urging the region to remain part of Ukraine.
“The Donetsk People’s Republic – nobody in the world will recognize it,” he said. “We will face huge sanctions and will not be able to sell or produce.”
At the Kiev roundtable, Oleksandr Efremov, parliamentary leader of Yanukovych’s former party, urged the government to withdraw its troops from the Donetsk region and said authorities should understand that people are genuinely suspicious of the new government.
The government has said it will not stop its offensive to retake eastern cities that are under the control of the separatists.
Serhiy Taruta, appointed by Kiev as the governor of Donetsk, sought to strike a conciliatory note. Among other things, he urged the government to refrain from calling pro-Russia protesters “terrorists,” but he also called for it to dismantle the protest camp on Kiev’s Independence Square that led to Yanukovych’s departure.
That would send a message that Kiev treats protesters on both sides equally, Taruta said.
The OSCE road map aims to halt the violence and de-escalate tensions ahead of Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election. It offers an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urges talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language.
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebiynis lamented, however, that the OSCE plan does not specifically oblige Russia to do anything.
Even so, European officials applauded the start of the talks. The EU’s enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, took to Twitter to welcome the session, voicing hope the next meeting would take place in eastern Ukraine.
But that wouldn’t be enough for many of the insurgents.
“The government in Kiev does not want to listen to the people of Donetsk,” said Denis Patkovski, a pro-Russia militiaman in the eastern city of Slovyansk. “They just come here with their guns.”
Protests in the east may have started with Russian-speaking residents demanding autonomy and self-rule, but such calls for a greater say in the central government seem obsolete now.
Insurgent leaders adopted a constitution for the Donetsk People’s Republic, which declared independence earlier this week. Pushilin, one of the insurgent leaders, insisted that they “no longer see themselves as part of Ukraine” and were willing to discuss an exchange of prisoners and the withdrawal of “forces of the occupying army.”
Russia has strongly backed the OSCE road map while the United States, which says it’s worth a try, views its prospects for success with skepticism. Sawsan Chebli, a spokeswoman for German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Ukraine’s acceptance of the round-table format was a step in the right direction, whether the pro-Russia separatists were invited or not.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland welcomed the talks, but said: “We would like to see as much effort as is going into dialogue and roundtables going into de-escalating, getting separatists out of buildings, demilitarizing the east.”
Nuland said there would be more sanctions from the U.S. “if Russia doesn’t step back.”
Karmanau reported from Donetsk. Srdjan Ndelejkovic and Alexander Zemlianichenko in Slovyansk, Ukraine; Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.