Ukraine walks back cease-fire announcement after Moscow says no deal was reached

A phone call between Ukrainian and Russian heads of state yields no breakthrough. NATO talks in Wales are expected to focus on the eastern Ukraine conflict and alleged Russian intervention there.

Laurent Dubrule/Reuters
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko holds a news conference at the European Council headquarters during an EU summit in Brussels August 30, 2014.

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday announced a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine following a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But he almost immediately had to walk back his upbeat message, casting doubt over its significance. 

Fighting between the government and pro-Russian separatists has killed 2,500 in the country’s east, where Ukraine's military has suffered significant setbacks in recent days amid increasing accusations of Russian involvement.

Mr. Poroshenko's call with Mr. Putin came one day before the start of a NATO summit in Wales that will focus heavily on the conflict in Ukraine.

Poroshenko’s office initially released a brief statement saying a “permanent cease-fire” with Russia had been reached. Putin’s spokesperson issued a quick rebuttal, arguing that the Kremlin could not negotiate a cease-fire because Russia isn’t a part of the internal conflict in eastern Ukraine, the BBC reports.

The Ukrainian statement was then revised, dropping the word "permanent" from the description of the cease-fire.

Ukraine and its Western allies accuse Russia of backing anti-government rebels in eastern Ukraine – and of sending Russian troops in recent days – charges the Kremlin denies.

There was some common ground in the statements from Kiev and Moscow. The Kremlin said that “both presidents’ views on possible ways to exit this difficult crisis situation, for the most part, coincide,” according to Ria Novosti.

The discussion continued on the military and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. The heads of states exchanged their opinions of what needs to be done first for the rapid halt of bloodshed in the country’s southeast,” [spokesman] Peskov said. 

Rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine gave conflicting answers about whether they would adhere to a cease-fire, the Washington Post reports. 

The Christian Science Monitor reported Monday that pro-Russian rebels for the first time said they are willing to talk with Kiev about a political settlement that would grant autonomy, instead of full independence, to eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

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.

Driving the Ukrainian side, at least in part, is a desire to regroup after military setbacks, Timothy Ash, a researcher at Standard Bank in London told the Kyiv Post.

...for the Ukrainian military this gives them a chance to regroup after recent military setbacks, and bide time to see what NATO and the EU delivers over the next few days in terms of deterrents to Russia for further intervention. 

Ukraine’s military has seen a sudden reversal in gains in made last month, due to Russian involvement, the Washington Post reports:

Just last month, Ukraine’s military had appeared to be on the verge of defeating the pro-Russian rebels who had waged a bloody war in eastern Ukraine since mid-April. But the balance turned last week after a column of tanks and armored personnel carriers flying rebel flags rolled into Ukraine near the key port city of Mariupol, opening another front in the conflict. Kiev’s forces have been forced into a sudden and major retreat.

... Ukraine’s military — never well-equipped or well-trained to begin with — has been suffering steep losses in recent weeks, and it has been unclear how long it can hold out against tough attacks from the pro-Russian side. NATO has said that at least 1,000 Russian soldiers are fighting on Ukrainian soil and that Russian artillery has been firing on Ukrainian positions from both inside and outside the country.

On the Russian side, willingness to discuss peace may be driven by the NATO summit, Mr. Ash argues.

In the past we have seen Moscow looking to talk/sending peace signals just before important EU/G7/NATO meetings, and presumably to weaken momentum towards sanctions/countermeasures.

A June cease-fire between the Ukrainian government and the separatists collapsed after 10 days.

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