Kremlin: Putin and Ukraine’s Poroshenko agree on outlines of a peace deal

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday announced a plan to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine that would entrench rebel gains there and hand a significant defeat to Ukrainian leaders who have sought to regain full control of the territory of their nation.

Putin said that he and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had agreed on the broad outlines of a seven-point peace settlement that would at least temporarily freeze the conflict on the ground. He specified no major concessions for the rebels and instead insisted on a large-scale Ukrainian military pullback and the introduction of international monitors to ensure that fighting does not resume.

Poroshenko did not specifically address the “Putin plan,” as it was dubbed by the Kremlin, but he said that the time had come to end the conflict.

“The first task is peace,” Poroshenko said in a statement. “Today at 5 a.m. I spoke to President Putin about how we can stop this horrible process. There is no denying that people must stop dying.”

Both leaders said that they hoped peace talks could start Friday.

The apparent concessions to Russia dealt a further blow to Ukrainian aspirations to escape the orbit of the nation to which they were once joined as part of the Soviet Union. Months of pro-European protests in Kiev ended in February with the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. Russia quickly moved to annex the Crimean Peninsula in response. The Europe-friendly Poroshenko was elected in a landslide victory in May, but his popularity has been damaged by the grueling conflict in the east, where ­Russian-backed rebels have claimed important swaths of territory.

Just weeks ago, Ukrainian forces appeared close to defeating the rebels. But since early last week, the rebels have made rapid, renewed strides against the Ukrainian military after Kiev reported a large-scale Russian incursion into southeastern Ukraine. The Kremlin denies aiding the rebels, although rebel leaders have said that Russian soldiers were using vacation time to fight on their side.

President Obama was cautious about reports of the settlement, speaking at a news conference in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, before Putin outlined the details of his peace proposal.

“There’s an opportunity here,” Obama said. “But no realistic political settlement can be achieved if, effectively, Russia says, ‘We are going to continue to send tanks and troops and arms and advisers under the guise of separatists who are not homegrown, and the only possible settlement is if Ukraine cedes its territory or its sovereignty or its ability to make its own decisions about its security and its economic future.’ ”

Putin told reporters during a visit to Mongolia that he believed he and Poroshenko were broadly in agreement about peace terms.

“Our views . . . are very close,” Putin told reporters in remarks that were broadcast on Russian state television. He said he had sketched out a peace plan on his flight from Russia.

But Putin’s demands could be difficult for Poroshenko to meet. The Ukrainian leader is under heavy domestic pressure not to surrender Ukraine’s industrial heartland to the rebels.

President Obama called Russia's actions "a brazen assault on the territorial integrity of Ukraine" during a speech in Tallinn, Estonia, on Wednesday. (WhiteHouse.gov)

In a late-Wednesday phone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Poroshenko said that any peace deal also needed to include the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the territory of Ukraine and the creation of a buffer zone along the Russian border, according to the presidential administration.

In a measure of the political unpopularity of any deal with Russia, even a Poroshenko ally, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said Wednesday that Putin’s plan would “destroy Ukraine and bring back the Soviet Union.”

Poroshenko also does not maintain full control over pro-Kiev volunteer militias that have been fighting the rebels alongside the regular army. They may be inclined to keep fighting despite instructions from Kiev. A previous cease-fire in June quickly broke down after each side accused the other of violating it.

Putin said that after an initial cease-fire, the Ukrainian government should withdraw its forces out of range of the current combat operations in southeastern Ukraine and commit to allowing international observers into the region to ensure that no further hostilities take place.

He also called for opening corridors to allow humanitarian aid into the war-torn regions, for a full exchange of prisoners of war, for an end to combat aircraft operations and for allowing repair brigades to restore damaged infrastructure in the region.

The Russian president specified no conditions regarding the political status of the territories seized by rebels, and his spokesman later said that the proposals were not “dogma” that had to be used in full and were intended only as a starting point to achieve an immediate halt to bloodshed.

But the plan would leave rebels in control of the key cities they have seized while a final settlement was discussed, thus freezing the conflict in a manner similar to what has happened in other disputed territories, such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova. Those contested regions are administered by pro-Russia groups but have scant international recognition.

It was not clear whether Putin was demanding a full Ukrainian withdrawal from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, both of which have been claimed by rebels but are not fully under their control.

An entrenched territorial dispute would make it far more difficult for Ukraine to join the NATO defense alliance. Blocking Ukraine from NATO would be a key Russian goal in the conflict. Alliance leaders plan to meet starting Thursday in Wales at a summit that will largely focus on the fighting in Ukraine.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine has been limited by security concerns and checkpoints, said Wednesday that it was moving ahead with plans to use drones to monitor border crossings between Ukraine and Russia. Two drones purchased from Schiebel, an Austrian contractor that will assist in operating the unmanned aircraft, are expected to be in operation within several weeks, according to Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.

Data from the drones’ video cameras and radar will be collected in real time by OSCE monitors, Bociurkiw said. He said the OSCE would expect to continue its monitoring mission if a cease-fire is agreed upon.

Rebel leaders told Russian news agencies that they were not consulted before the cease-fire was announced, but they appeared to be willing to abide by Putin’s terms.

“If Kiev withdraws troops from settlements,” a rebel leader, Miroslav Rudenko, told the Interfax news agency, “then no sense will exist for resolving the conflict with force and then, of course, we will not carry out combat operations.”

Still, a day earlier rebels were saying that they wanted full independence from Ukraine, a step that would be politically impossible for Poroshenko to accept. Putin on Sunday called for “statehood” for the rebel-held territories, although his spokesman later clarified that he meant more autonomy within Ukraine.

In the southeastern port city of Mariupol, Ruslan Onishchenko, the commander of the Shakhtersk Battalion, a pro-government volunteer militia, said shelling continued throughout the day Wednesday despite the talk of a cease-fire, although it was not clear who was shooting. He said troops had not been instructed to hold their fire as of midday Wednesday.

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 inside and outside the country.

Gowen reported from Kiev. Katie Zezima in Tallinn, William Branigin in Washington, Daniela Deane in Rome and Karoun Demirjian in Moscow contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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