President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine claimed to have agreed a “permanent ceasefire” with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, but his announcement seemed premature as fighting continued in the east of the country.
Mr Putin also struck an emollient tone as he claimed the two leaders’ views were “very close”, although the Kremlin stressed that an agreement had not been reached. Meanwhile, artillery explosions rocked the outskirts of Donetsk, shortly after Kiev and Moscow signalled progress in the ceasefire talks.
The talks between the two presidents came after a series of reverses for Ukrainian forces, which the government blamed on Russia sending troops across the border to bolster pro-Kremlin separatists. Tensions had risen earlier in the week when Mr Putin was reported to have boasted that his forces could sweep into Kiev within two weeks if he wanted.
Ahead of a Nato summit starting today in Newport, South Wales, President Barack Obama flew to Estonia, one of three former Soviet states on the Baltic. Mr Obama expressed his scepticism about a potential ceasefire, warning that it could be effective only if Moscow stopped sending troops into Ukraine and admitted it was covertly backing separatist fighters.
“We have consistently supported the effort of President Poroshenko of achieving a meaningful ceasefire that could lead to a political settlement,” Mr Obama told reporters.
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
British sources also expressed caution over reports of a ceasefire, insisting it would only be meaningful if it was observed by pro-Russian militias. And the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, claimed any talk of a ceasefire could be a Russian effort to avoid further sanctions from the West. “All previous agreements made with Russia – in Geneva, in Normandy, in Berlin and in Minsk – were ignored or brazenly violated by the Russian regime,” he said.
In France last night, the Élysée Palace announced that it was suspending the controversial delivery of a €600m (£480m) state-of-the-art warship to the Russian navy. After an emergency meeting of the National Defence Council, President François Hollande said that “conditions do not today exist” for the delivery of the first of two Mistral helicopter carriers this autumn.
Russia has paid for the ship and Russians sailors are already training aboard the vessel in St Nazaire on the French Atlantic coast. Up to last night, France had stoutly resisted pressure from the US and its EU partners to suspend its delivery. In its statement, the Élysée Palace said: “The President... has concluded that, despite the possibility of a ceasefire which remains to be confirmed and implemented, the conditions do not today exist to allow France to authorise the delivery of the first [helicopter carrier].”
Nato’s leaders will stage a show of solidarity this afternoon, as Mr Poroshenko joins them for talks on the crisis gripping his country. The turmoil in Ukraine has transformed the original agenda of the conference, which was intended to mark the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan.
Political leaders, including 35 heads of government and state, will instead now debate the biggest challenge to the 28-member alliance since the end of the Cold War. They are expected to agree plans to set up an emergency force of around 5,000 troops that will be able to respond to threats to Nato members at two to five days’ notice. It will complement an existing 14,000-strong Nato response force.
The leaders will also discuss further exercises in member states bordering Russia and the Baltic countries. The moves reflect a dramatic cooling of the diplomatic temperature since the spring, when the crisis was triggered by Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Nato has suspended all co-operation with the Kremlin and carried out military exercises in Eastern European countries. .”
Confusion over a potential agreement began after Mr Poroshenko tweeted: “As a result of my telephone conversation with the Russian President, we reached an agreement on a permanent ceasefire on Donbas [an eastern area of Ukraine].”
Speaking during a visit to Mongolia, Mr Putin said: “Our views on the way to resolve the conflict, as it seemed to me, are very close.”
He also predicted that a final deal could be struck tomorrow in talks in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.