MOSCOW — Efforts to advance peace talks between Ukraine’s government and pro-Moscow rebels appeared on stronger footing Friday as a fragile cease-fire held in a conflict that has raised
Russian-Western tensions to Cold War levels.
Talks had been planned this week between Kiev and the rebels, who took up arms in eastern Ukraine this year after protests toppled the Russian-allied government. But Ukrainian officials put the dialogue on hold until there was evidence of wider adherence to a cease-fire — agreed
to in September — after repeated flare-ups of violence.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, speaking in Sydney, said Friday was the “first 24 hours in seven months when we have had a real” halt to clashes. A Ukrainian military spokesman later said that one soldier was wounded by gunfire but that the truce was generally holding.
Rebels also said they remained interested in the discussions, to be held in Minsk, Belarus.
The effort to move ahead with talks followed a spate of conciliatory remarks in recent days by Russian officials, who are contending with a deepening economic crisis fueled by Western sanctions and falling oil prices.
Although previous breaks in fighting were fleeting, Ukrainian officials appear more hopeful about a lasting truce.
But Poroshenko repeated his appeals for Western backing after such blows as Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The rebels, meanwhile, fear that their rights and political voice will be weakened by Ukraine’s move toward closer ties with the European Union and the West.
“This is not just a war for our independence, not a war for our sovereignty, not just a war for our territorial integrity. This is a war for freedom,” Poroshenko said in Australia, which lost 38 citizens when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July.
In late November, Ukraine cut financial ties with the breakaway portions of its eastern industrial heartland, a measure that appeared intended to give the Kremlin the burden of supporting the rebels.
The move severed rebel-held territories from the international financial system, halting credit card and banking transactions and putting additional pressure on rebel leaders as winter sets in. Russia has been sending aid convoys into eastern Ukraine without the Kiev government’s consent, including one Friday, but Moscow has held back from open financial support for the rebels.
“A real chance has emerged to restore peace in Ukraine,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told foreign-policy experts in Moscow on Friday, according to a transcript posted on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site. “It was difficult, but there is still a truce and a cease-fire.”
In a shift from more confrontational moments in the Ukraine crisis, Lavrov indicated that Russia saw rebel-held areas as part of Ukraine’s future.
He called for “political dialogue, which should ultimately lead to a constitutional reform in Ukraine with the participation of all regions and political forces in the country.”
International observers have not yet seen a significant pullback of heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine, according to Alexander Hug, deputy head of a monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who spoke to reporters in Kiev on Friday. But he said hostilities had diminished in recent days.
Previous attempts at detente have failed, leading many observers to be cautious over current prospects. A Sept. 5 cease-fire agreement never stopped the fighting, and more than 10 people a day on average have been killed since, according to U.N. estimates. Ukraine and NATO have said Russia sent thousands of its own troops into eastern Ukraine in recent months, a charge the Kremlin denies.
Russia’s economic problems now suddenly weigh heavily on policymakers in Moscow.
The country’s economy is deeply dependent on exports of oil and natural gas, and global oil prices have dropped steeply. A barrel of benchmark Brent oil hit a 5
And Ukraine is contending with an economy in collapse under the burden of a year of political turmoil and war. Its currency reserves are perilously low, and some analysts have raised the prospect of a default within weeks.