Ukraine rebels say they are willing to talk peace with Kiev (+video)

The announcement is a major step away from the rebels' previous demand for wholesale independence from Kiev, and opens the door for a federal autonomy for east Ukraine.

By , Correspondent

East Ukraine's Russian-backed rebels now say they are willing to talk with Kiev about a political settlement that would keep Ukraine united but would grant sweeping autonomy to their war-torn regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Barely a week ago, rebel prime minister Alexander Zakharchenko insisted he would only be satisfied by full independence for the self-declared proto-state, Novorossiya. He said that living within Ukraine would be impossible after several months of bloody warfare that has displaced hundreds of thousands and probably killed far more than the official estimates of 2,600 people.

But after a week that has seen rebel forces roll back the Ukrainian sieges of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as open a new front around Mariupol, the region's second largest city, they say they're ready to negotiate.

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Speaking at a Minsk meeting of the three-way Contact Group [Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] on Monday, the rebel delegation outlined its terms, which include a full ceasefire and pullback of Ukrainian forces from their regions. "Equal talks are the only acceptable means for the settlement of the conflict and restoration of peace," TASS quoted rebel officials as saying.

Russian experts say the rebels are harmonizing their line with Moscow, which has outlined its own endgame for the nearly six-month old crisis with growing confidence as the rebels, who NATO alleges are backed by at least 1,000 Russian troops, continue to press their advantage against beleaguered Ukrainian forces.

On Sunday President Vladimir Putin said that Kiev urgently needed to sit down with the rebels to redesign Ukraine's model of statehood from the current "unitary" format – in which regions are run by the central government in Kiev – to a more decentralized system. Such a system would allow east Ukraine to elect its own leaders, maintain the Russian language as the main means of communication, and negotiate its own economic relations with Russia. On principle, Kiev is not opposed to greater regional autonomy and has even hatched its own decentralization plan, but the devil is probably in the details.

Since the start of the crisis, Moscow has also made clear that any final settlement must include guarantees that Ukraine will remain non-aligned. Kiev's plea to be admitted into NATO late last week, amid its wave of battlefield reversals, is only likely to make Moscow more adamant on that point, experts say.

"What Putin is saying is that we want Ukraine to survive as a united state, but only if certain terms that he deems necessary for Russia's security are met," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.

A two hour face-to-face meeting last week between Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk appeared to end with both leaders hardening their positions.

Since then, Putin has opened the spigot to allow greater Russian assistance to the rebels. But Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal, says he's not doing it with an eye to eventually annexing east Ukraine or even creating an independent statelet that would become dependent on Moscow.

The Russian "gameplan," he says, is to convince Kiev that there can be no military solution to the conflict, and that only a political deal with Moscow and the rebels can save Ukraine from looming economic and political collapse.

"This is all about pressuring Poroshenko to come back to the table and bargain on Russian terms," he says. "What is happening down there is not a 'Russian invasion,' no matter what they're saying in Kiev. This is not at all what an actual Russian invasion would look like."

Mr. Lukyanov says that Putin is putting his finger on the scales of battle in east Ukraine, perhaps by injecting Russian special forces, allowing larger numbers of Russian volunteers to join the rebels, and providing intelligence, arms, and logistic support.

He says that while it's a convenient propaganda pose for Kiev and the West to blame only Russia for the rebels' resurgence, that explanation ignores other important factors. For one thing, the rebels have had months to consolidate, train their forces, and leverage the advantages of their defensive position. "Initially they were a bunch of paramilitary groups, but now they look much more like an organized army," he says.

The other key factor, Mr. Mukhin says, is serious blunders committed by Ukrainian military leaders, who assumed that they were winning just because they were taking territory.

"Ukrainian leaders believed in quick victory, but they overextended their forces and put them into positions where the rebels could easily surround and destroy them. That's just what's happening now. In Kiev they keep saying that the Russians are doing all this, but to a great extent they did it to themselves."

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