Many Ukrainians remain pessimistic even as peace talks loom

As Ukraine's president meets top NATO leaders in Wales, Russia is warning Kiev's desire to join NATO is a blatant attempt to derail efforts to seek a peaceful solution in Ukraine. (AP)

The day before envoys from Russia and Ukraine were set to sit down and chart a course to peace after five months of conflict, many Ukrainians were deeply pessimistic about the future and divided as ever about the way forward for their young, fragile country.

Around the country’s capital of Kiev and in the war-torn east, Ukrainians interviewed Thursday said they were weary of the fighting, which has grown more violent in recent days and left more than 2,600 people dead, according to the United Nations figures.

But they differed widely about whether they think their new president, Petro Poroshenko, will be able to negotiate an end to the crisis. Or whether Russian President Vladimir Putin, accused of supplying the rebel force with troops and tanks, can be trusted now.

The uncertainty was most keenly felt among the pro-democracy demonstrators who for months stood on Kiev’s Independence Square and in February ousted the country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Veterans of the “Maidan,” as the square is called, worried that any concessions to Moscow would pull them back into Russia’s authoritarian orbit and risk further violence.

“We only partially achieved our goals. The system hasn’t been changed,” said Konstantin Ivanov, 31, a sound and light engineer. “People will be in the streets. There will definitely be another Maidan” protest.

Poroshenko spoke at the NATO summit in Wales on Thursday evening, saying he had “careful optimism” about the possibility of a peace deal Friday. Ukraine in recent weeks has stepped up its attempts to join the NATO alliance — a move strongly opposed by Russia. The Kremlin sees keeping Ukraine out of NATO as a central pillar of its own defense strategy.

“We have to be cautious in our assessment,” said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s secretary general. “If we are witnessing a genuine effort to find a political solution, I would welcome it.”

Earlier in the day, Poroshenko and the rebel commanders set times for a Friday cease-fire, contingent on what happens at the talks. Meanwhile, battles continued in Ukraine’s south and east, where Ukrainian troops fought in Shyrokyne. That town is about 14 miles east of the key southeastern port city of Mariupol, which has been readying itself for a large-scale incursion for more than a week.

Poroshenko and Putin had begun talking early Wednesday about a plan for peace, a development that surprised many in Kiev. Putin took the reins of the process early, saying he and Poroshenko had agreed to a seven-point plan that would at least temporarily freeze the conflict on the ground. He is insisting on a large-scale Ukrainian military pullback and the introduction of international monitors to ensure that fighting does not resume.

Many in Kiev said they were skeptical of Putin, after months of denials from Moscow that Russians were involved in aiding the rebel side with troops and superior firepower. A large-scale incursion by Russian armored vehicles and soldiers — documented in satellite photos released by NATO — helped turn the tide on the battlefield in favor of the rebels in recent days, Ukrainian and Western military officials have said.

A wounded soldier from the Aidar Battalion, a volunteer group of soldiers that includes former Maidan protesters, said he wanted peace but did not believe that it would be achieved anytime soon. He said he had just come to Kiev for treatment of a bullet wound he suffered in the battle for the town of Ilovaysk. A group of more than 200 men had been trapped behind rebel lines there for over a week, leaving dozens of casualties.

“Out of 24 men in my unit, only eight remained living,” the soldier said. As is common practice, for security reasons, he gave only his nickname, Tank.

NATO leaders area facing what's being described as the toughest summit since the Cold War, as allied leaders tackle the crisis in Ukraine and the threat posed by the Islamic State. (Reuters)

“Yes, we want peace. And we would be crazy to continue to fight Russia,” he said.

He said that his battalion would respect a cease-fire but that he did not expect one to hold.

“It will not end like this,” he said. “I will go and fight still.”

Many in the country’s east who support a greater autonomy for the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk — where many people want closer ties with Russia — were supportive of Moscow’s involvement in the peace talks.

“People don’t really care here who they will be living under. They don’t care if it’s going to be called Ukraine, Russia or Novorossiya,” said Sergei, an insurance company employee from Luhansk.

Sergei, who did not give his full name because he fears for his safety, used the czarist-era term, repopularized by Putin, for a belt of territory that was once controlled by Imperial Russia and includes eastern Ukraine. The term translates as “New Russia.”

He said he has grown to hate the Ukrainian armed forces after his home city was relentlessly shelled. “I used to be proud to be called a Ukrainian,” he said. “Now I’m not. I can’t be proud of the side that is shooting people.”

Ukraine’s political turmoil began in November when Yanu­kovych declined to sign a trade agreement that would have brought the country closer to Europe. After his ouster in February, Russia quickly moved to annex the Crimean Peninsula. Then fighting moved into eastern Ukraine.

Just weeks ago Ukrainian forces had made gains on the rebels. But since early last week the fighters have battled with renewed strength, after what the Ukrainian military said was a large-scale Russian incursion into southeastern Ukraine.

Analysts have theorized that a cease-fire could lead to a “frozen conflict” in eastern Ukraine with breakaway territories living under Russian support, similar to the current situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.

A U.N. report last week said that more than 1 million people had been displaced by the conflict, and many war-weary Ukrainians said they would be willing to support a plan that might ultimately partition their country just to see an end to the bloodshed.

“Ukraine right now needs peace,” said Boris Shamis, 78, a retired engineer in Kiev. “You have to respect the military capacity of Russia. Ukraine right now is losing it. I don’t want more death.”

He said he vividly recalls as a child escaping a train that was being shelled by the German military in World War II, running to safety alongside his mother. He said this is why he supports a peace plan, even an imperfect one. “I know what this war could lead to,” he said.

Birnbaum reported from Moscow. Natalie Gryvnyak in Kiev contributed to this report.

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