Ukraine president presses for quick cease-fire

By , on February 8, 2015

Most rating Ukrainian presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko speaks at election meeting in Uzhgorod (Mykhaylo Palinchak / ShutterStock)
Most rating Ukrainian presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko speaks at election meeting in Uzhgorod (Mykhaylo Palinchak / ShutterStock)

MUNICH — Ukraine’s president is pushing for a quick cease-fire in his country’s troubled east and insists that the conflict there must be resolved, not frozen.

Petro Poroshenko is also renewing Kiev’s call to be provided with defensive weapons, something that’s opposed by European countries.

Poroshenko was speaking at the Munich Security Conference Saturday amid a flurry of international diplomacy to calm the Ukraine conflict.

Poroshenko said that “there is no temporary solution – this conflict must be resolved, not frozen.”

He said Ukraine stands ready for a “comprehensive and immediate cease-fire” and Russia should be ready too.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Saturday that she’s still unsure of reaching a deal to calm the crisis in Ukraine, which France’s president said could feature a broad demilitarized zone and greater autonomy for the separatist eastern region.

Merkel and French President Francois Hollande traveled to Kiev Thursday and Moscow Friday in a bid to defuse growing violence in Ukraine. The two leaders plan to discuss the proposals in a phone call Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Hollande, speaking to France 2 television, said the plan under negotiation would see a 50- to 70-kilometer (31- to 44-mile) demilitarized zone.

He called for “rather strong” autonomy in the east. “These people have gone to war,” Hollande said. “It will be difficult to make them share a common life.”

The negotiators’ aim is to draw up a possible joint document on implementing the much-violated September peace plan concluded in Minsk, Belarus. That agreement also featured a demilitarized zone, though the battle lines have since changed, and the government in Kiev has offered a measure of autonomy to the separatists.

“This conflict cannot be resolved by military means,” Merkel said at the Munich Security Conference. “It is all the more important now to set out substantial steps that serve to fill with life the Minsk agreement.”

Merkel said it is uncertain whether the talks will succeed, “but it is, from my point of view and that of the French president, in any case worth making this attempt.”

Hollande said the current negotiations are a last chance: “Because if we are not able to reach, not a compromise but a durable peace accord, we perfectly know the scenario: it has one name, it is called war.”

“It’s very much worth the attempt,” U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said of the diplomatic push. “But we must judge the existing agreement in Minsk and any future agreement with Russia by the actions Russia takes on the ground, not by the paper they signed.”

The urgent diplomacy comes as Western anxiety over the conflict grows and sanctions bite ever harder on Russia’s economy. More than 5,300 people have been killed since fighting began in April, according to a U.N. tally, and the bloodshed has markedly increased over the past two weeks.

Five Ukrainian servicemen were killed and 26 wounded in fighting over the past day, Ukrainian security council spokesman Volodymyr Polyoviy said Saturday. The government website in the port city of Mariupol said one man was killed in shelling of the outlying settlement of Gnutove, which it blamed on rebels.

Russia’s most immediate goal in the Ukraine crisis is likely the lifting of some of the Western sanctions which, in concert with plunging oil prices, have driven the Russian economy into a parlous state – or at least to fend off the imposition of further sanctions. In the longer game, Russia has pushed for so-called “federalization” of Ukraine that would give broad powers to its provinces and allow them to deal directly with Moscow.

Merkel acknowledged that experience of agreements being violated on the ground has been “disillusioning.”

Asked whether there are any guarantees a new agreement won’t suffer the same fate, she replied that “there are no theoretical guarantees.”

“After such experiences, I am very cautious with guarantees,” she said. “The guarantee can only be keeping to what has been agreed … but the answer can’t be not to make any more agreements. Of course we have to try again and again, at least I think so.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he “sincerely” hopes the latest diplomatic drive “will produce results, and those results will be supported by the parties to this conflict.”

As soon as Kiev and eastern Ukrainian separatists agree on practical details of implementing the Minsk deal, “I am sure that Russia will be among those parties that will guarantee the implementation of this agreement,” Lavrov told the conference. “But you can only guarantee what has already been achieved.”

The United States and other Western countries contend Russia has supplied troops and equipment to the separatists in eastern Ukraine who have been fighting Ukrainian government forces since April. Russia denies the claims.

The resurgent fighting has prompted the U.S. to consider giving lethal weapons to Ukraine, an option opposed by European nations which fear the move would merely make the situation worse.

“The problem is that I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily,” Merkel said. “I have to put it that bluntly.”

Lavrov denounced “growing appeals in the West to … pump Ukraine full with lethal weapons and to involve it in NATO.” He said that “this position will only exacerbate the tragedy of Ukraine.”

Biden stopped short of explicitly addressing possible arms deliveries. “We will continue to provide Ukraine with security assistance not to encourage war, but to allow Ukraine to defend itself,” he said, adding that Washington doesn’t believe there is a military solution in Ukraine.

Following a long meeting with Lavrov behind closed doors in Munich, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the two found little common ground, but agreed to keep political and military-to-military channels of communication open.

“It’s clear that we assess the situation in Ukraine in different ways,” he said.

Stoltenberg said that the alliance itself has no weapons; any decision to send arms to Kiev is a matter for its member countries.

“There is a discussion going on among NATO allies now,” he said. “That’s part of being an alliance of open democratic societies.”

David Rising in Munich and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.