The crisis in Ukraine will spiral “out of control” without an end to the immediate fighting, the country’s President, Petro Poroshenko, warned as he arrived in Belarus for a summit meeting aimed at securing a lasting settlement to the separatist conflict.
“Either the situation goes down the road of de-escalation, ceasefire... or the situation goes out of control,” he said.
Speaking as leaders of Russia, Germany and France also flew to Minsk, the Belarusan capital, for peace talks, Mr Poroshenko warned that Ukraine was prepared to defend itself militarily if necessary. “I, the government and the parliament are ready to take the decision to introduce martial law in all the territories of Ukraine,” he said. “We are for peace... [but] our country needs to be defended and we will do that to the end.”
Earlier in the day, he dismissed a proposal for far greater autonomy of the eastern regions of Ukraine, part of a plan put forward for discussion by President Vladimir Putin, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President François Hollande. “Ukraine has always been and always will be a unified state... federalisation is a seed that will not take root in Ukrainian soil,” he said.
The four leaders met alone this evening and were due to begin a full summit with their delegations later. A Ukrainian delegation source claimed the leaders were preparing to sign a joint declaration supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
A separate document would also be prepared by the three-way “contact group” comprising Russia, Ukraine and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, affirming commitment to a ceasefire plan drawn up in Minsk last September and also signed by separatist leaders, the source said.
Hopes for a breakthrough and enduring settlement appeared slim, and would depend on Ukraine making most of the concessions, with advancing rebels unlikely to agree to halt and go back to previous positions.
But Moscow none the less expressed optimism, with a Russian diplomatic source declaring it 70 per cent likely that an agreement would be reached. “The presidents aren’t travelling [to Minsk] for no reason,” the source said.
Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Kiev’s insistence on control of the Russian-Ukrainian border – part of which is held by the separatists – could be holding back an agreement.
As the leaders began talks, four people died and five were injured when shells hit a busy bus station in rebel-held Donetsk during the rush hour. Ukraine’s army also said that 19 of its soldiers were killed in a day of pro-Russian separatist assaults at a single location near the railway hub of Debaltseve, some of the worst losses it has reported in nine months of war.
The Independent has learnt that – unlike many such international meetings – no agreements had been brokered before the leaders sat down. “Everything is in waiting mode”, said a Ukrainian official with intimate knowledge of the negotiations. He said that a key aim of Ukraine was to force Mr Putin to take personal responsibility for any agreement – although the Russian President has so far claimed his government is not party to the fighting.
Discussion was also likely to be focused on the extent to which a previous agreement struck in Minsk last September was ignored by Russia.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
Dmytro Kuleba, ambassador at large for the Ukrainian foreign ministry, says he had reason to believe the Russian side saw the Minsk agreements only as a temporary measure.
“They expected Ukraine to break – to implode financially or embark on ill-advised military offensives,” Mr Kuleba told The Independent.
Meanwhile, the US military said it planned in March to start training Ukrainian soldiers who are battling Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, US Army Europe Commander Lt-Gen Ben Hodges said a battalion of American soldiers would train three battalions of Ukrainians in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.
He said Americans will teach the Ukrainians how to better defend themselves against “Russian and rebel artillery and rockets”. Training would also include securing roads, bridges and other infrastructure, treating and evacuating casualties, and operating in an environment where Russians are jamming communications.
Lt-Gen Hodges accused Mr Putin of arming and fomenting the pro-Russia separatists. “I think it’s very important to recognise these are not separatists, these are proxies for President Putin,” he said. “It is very obvious from the amount of ammunition, the type of equipment, that there is direct Russian military intervention in the area around Debaltseve.”
He added: “I do worry that if they are successful in Debaltseve that they will shift their attention to Mariupol,” referring to the strategic port city.
“I don’t know that, but I am concerned that that is something that they might do. They certainly have a large number of Russian forces, 10 battalions, on the border of eastern Ukraine.”Reuse content