Ukraine’s President says Russia has removed the bulk of its forces from his country, raising hopes for a peace drive now underway after five months of conflict in which more than 2,600 people have been killed. He has offered an olive branch to pro-Russian separatists, saying regions under rebel control would get special autonomy.
President Petro Poroshenko told a televised cabinet meeting on Wednesday that Ukraine would remain a sovereign, united country under the terms of a peace roadmap approved last Friday. He added that “70 per cent” of Russian troops had moved back across the border. “This further strengthens our hope that the peace initiatives have good prospects,” he said.
Moscow denies sending troops into eastern Ukraine to support pro-Russian rebels battling Ukrainian forces, despite what Kiev and its Western allies say is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Moscow also denies arming the separatists.
Mr Poroshenko said he would propose a bill next week offering “special status” to parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine they now control.
But he was adamant in rejecting the separatists’ demands for full independence for their regions and the kind of radical “federalisation” favoured by Russia.
“The Minsk protocol envisages the restoration and preservation of Ukrainian sovereignty on all the territory of the Donbass [in eastern Ukraine], including that controlled by the fighters,” Mr Poroshenko said. However, he said the ceasefire was not proving easy to maintain because “terrorists” were constantly trying to provoke Kiev’s forces.
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
Ukraine’s military recorded at least six violations of the ceasefire overnight and into Wednesday morning but said there were no casualties. Mr Poroshenko said Ukraine was regrouping its forces in eastern Ukraine, not in preparation for a new offensive against the rebels, as the separatists themselves have suggested, but in order to defend territory from possible attack.
City authorities in Mariupol, a key front-line city, announced tough new security measures yesterday including a night-time curfew to help control rebel movements.
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Nato of using the Ukraine crisis to “resuscitate itself”. At a summit last week in Wales, Nato pledged support for non-member Ukraine in its efforts to tackle the separatist rebellion and announced plans to beef up the defence of alliance members in eastern Europe, including the Baltic republics.
Mr Putin also signed a decree taking direct charge of a commission that oversees Russia’s defence industry as Moscow tries to reduce reliance on Western equipment.
Mr Putin said Russia must maintain its nuclear deterrent because of what he said were a growing number of possible security threats. Shortly before he spoke, Russia carried out a successful test of its new submarine-launched Bulava intercontinental missile, which can carry a nuclear warhead.
He said Russia must ensure it develops high-precision weapons in the next few years but added: “Someone might want to start a new arms race. We are not going to take part in that, of course.” “
The EU and US have imposed economic sanctions against Russia over its role in Ukraine, prompting Moscow to retaliate by banning most Western food imports.
The EU has prepared another wave of sanctions targeting Russia’s banking and energy sectors but has held off implementing them to see whether the ceasefire holds.
In Prague, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is monitoring the ceasefire, said it would be reasonable to allow more time for the peace process.
Mr Poroshenko signed a law yesterday allowing Ukraine to impose its own sanctions against Russian firms and individuals deemed to be backing the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The President has also been invited to address a joint meeting of the US Congress, an offer intended to underscore Washington’s commitment to his country.