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Confusion as Russia and Ukraine announce progress on ceasefire process

Anatoly Boyko, AFP | Ukrainian forces train volunteers

Ukraine said Wednesday its president had agreed with Russia's Vladimir Putin on steps towards a "ceasefire regime" in Kiev's conflict with pro-Russian rebels, but the Kremlin denied any actual truce deal, sowing confusion on the eve of a NATO summit.

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Despite the confusion, the statements appeared to indicate a degree of progress that could influence European Union leaders as they consider introducing new sanctions against Russia as early as Friday.

In a brief statement released Wednesday morning, Poroshenko’s press office said that, “mutual understanding was achieved concerning the steps which will enable the establishment of peace” following a phone conversation between the two leaders.

But moments later, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that a ceasefire had been reached, saying that although the two countries agreed on what needed to happen, Russia was not in a position to negotiate such an agreement because it was not a party to the Ukraine crisis.

Later Wednesday, Putin enforced that stance, saying a solution “to end the bloodshed” could be reached on Friday, when Kiev and pro-Russian rebels attend a meeting of the international contact group on Ukraine in Minsk, Belarus.

The Russian leader suggested a seven-step plan in which he called for both the separatists and Ukraine to halt military operations. He also urged Ukraine to move its forces back from the frontlines and refrain from shelling in civilian areas.

“Our views on the way to resolve the conflict, as it seemed to me, are very close,” Putin told reporters.

Pro-Russian separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces in the mainly Russian-speaking Donbass region, which is home to most of the country’s heavy industry and accounts for about 18 percent of its economic output.

Russia also simultaneously announced plans for huge military exercises this month by the strategic rocket forces responsible for its long-range nuclear weapons. It said the manoeuvres in south-central Russia would involve 4,000 troops and extensive use of air power.

Obama in Estonia

The confusing statements came as US President Barack Obama held a press conference in Estonia alongside the country’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, which was seen by some as a broader show of solidarity with NATO’s ex-Soviet members.

Speaking in Estonia’s capital Tallinn, Obama said that the US was fully committed to Estonia’s security. He also said that European members of NATO needed to take on their share of defence spending to bolster the alliance. NATO is due to hold a summit in Wales on Thursday.

Addressing reports of the ceasefire in Donbass, the US president said it was too early to tell what it meant. He added that the United States had consistently supported efforts by Poroshenko to negotiate a serious ceasefire that could pave the way for a political resolution to the crisis.

Obama warned, however, that it would be impossible to reach a solution if Russia continues to send tanks and troops into Ukraine.

“No realistic political settlement can be achieved if effectively Russia says we are going to continue to send tanks and troops and arms and advisors under the guise of separatists, who are not home grown, and the only possible settlement is if Ukraine cedes its territory or its sovereignty,” he said.

Russia vehmentley denies any military presence in Ukraine, despite what Western governments have called overwhelming evidence.

Fighting in Ukraine has claimed the lives of at least 2,600 people since April, stoking the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)

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