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'We are already at war,' Ukrainian PM tells FRANCE 24

In an interview with FRANCE 24 on Wednesday, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk discussed granting more autonomy to east Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fight "against the Western world” and said that Ukraine is "already at war".

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Responding to criticisms that the ceasefire called for by the “Minsk II” agreement signed in February has been repeatedly violated by both sides, Yatseniuk said Ukraine is “eager” to hold up its end of the deal.

“But too much, if not everything, depends on Putin – whether he wants peace and stability,” Yatseniuk said.

“What is the ultimate goal of President Putin? He is not just fighting against Ukraine … He is fighting against you – he is fighting against the Western world, he is fighting against the free world, he is fighting against the EU,” Yatseniuk said. “Stability in Russia lies in the instability of the European Union. Ukraine just became the battlefield.”

When the time is right, Ukraine is willing to hold a vote that would possibly grant more autonomy to separatist areas of the east, Yatseniuk said.

“But it is impossible to hold free and fair elections under the barrel of the Russian gun.”

Yatseniuk said Ukraine had already consulted with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on whether the circumstances were yet in place to hold elections in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. Kiev is ready to allow for elections and to talk to a legitimately elected government, Yatseniuk said. But Ukraine does not want to see Moscow use a vote to “legitimise” the actions of the separatists.

“We are already in a state of war,” Yatseniuk said. More than 7,000 lives have been lost so far in a conflict prompted by what he called Russia’s “far-right nationalistic sentiment". And a fresh offensive is more than likely, he said.

“We estimate that more than 40,000 Russian military boots are on the ground, both Russian regular forces and Russian-led guerrillas” along with hundreds of tanks, he said.

Asked whether the United States and the European Union were doing enough to help Ukraine, Yatseniuk said more could be done on the ground.

“I would be happy to see more decisiveness,” he said, adding that he would like to see the West provide defensive weapons to Ukraine such as anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems.

Meeting with Hollande

Yatseniuk held talks on Wednesday also with French President François Hollande, who called for more progress to be made in implementing the Minsk deal and expressed his concern over violations of the ceasefire.

The two men also discussed strengthening bilateral relations in accordance with a cooperation agreement signed on April 22 in Paris by Hollande and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko.

Future joint projects could include the energy and agriculture sectors as well as academic and scientific endeavours.

Western powers have increased the pressure on Russia in recent days, calling on Moscow to respect the terms of the Minsk ceasefire by withdrawing its heavy artillery from conflict areas.

Speaking after a NATO summit in Antalya on Wednesday, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned Russia to halt support for the separatist rebels and immediately withdraw its weapons.

Stoltenberg described the ceasefire as "ever more fragile".

"Now is the time to act ... there is urgency when it comes to fulfilling the Minsk agreement," he said.

A statement issued after a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission said that the ceasefire violations were "primarily by Russian-backed separatists" and accused Moscow of supplying the rebels with weapons.

The West has repeatedly accused Russia of arming separatists in eastern Ukraine and even sending its own troops across the border to help in the fight against Ukraine’s army. Russia denies the charges and calls the fighters “volunteers”.

The statement also expressed concern over a "wide-ranging" military build-up by Russia in Crimea as well as talk that Moscow might consider installing nuclear weapons on the Black Sea peninsula, which it annexed in March of last year.

"We are deeply concerned by statements of possible future stationing of nuclear weapons and development systems in Crimea," Stoltenberg said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Putin on Tuesday, the highest-level US visit to Russia since the Ukraine conflict erupted in 2013.

The talks lasted for four hours and ended without a concrete breakthrough, although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after the meeting that it had helped the two sides "better understand each other".

Speaking a day later at the NATO summit in Antalya, Kerry said the United States and its allies would prefer not to maintain the sanctions against Russia but would do so if it proved necessary to continue the push for peace in Ukraine.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

To watch the full interview, click on the player above. 

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