As Ukraine announces cease-fire, U.S. accuses Russia of covert acts

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WASHINGTON — On a day that the Ukrainian government announced a unilateral cease-fire in its battle with separatists in the country’s east, the Obama administration raised the stakes with Russia, accusing the Kremlin of continuing to covertly arm the rebels.

Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said the cease-fire would begin at 10 p.m. local time Friday. Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, has stressed that the plan hinges on the sealing of the porous border with Russia, to prevent the flow of fighters and arms.

There was no immediate reaction from separatist leaders, but in recent days, they have reacted skeptically to the idea of a cease-fire, and many have said they have no intention of putting down their weapons.

The halt in military operations is part of a broader peace plan that Mr. Poroshenko has been developing in recent weeks, in consultation with Russia and Western leaders.

In Washington, however, U.S. officials accused Russia of working to undermine the prospects for peace, even as Russian President Vladimir Putin consulted with Mr. Poroshenko virtually daily on his peace proposal. President Barack Obama warned Mr. Putin this month that the West would impose “additional costs” on Russia if its provocations were to continue.

“We have information that Russia has redeployed significant military forces to its border with Ukraine,” a senior Obama administration officials told reporters Friday. “Russian special forces are also maintaining points along the Ukrainian border to provide support to separatist fighters.”

The State Department reported last week that three aging Russian T-64 tanks had been sent to Ukraine, and Ukrainian officials recently told Western officials that 10 more Russian tanks have been provided to Ukraine‘‍s pro-Russian separatists. Adding to Western concerns, the senior Obama administration official said, artillery has been moved to a deployment site inside southwest Russia and may soon be shipped across the border. U.S. officials said Russia was providing older weapons that its forces have phased out, but are known to remain in the Ukrainian military’s inventory.

“The desire here is to mask the Russian hand,” by allowing Ukrainian separatists to claim the weapons were captured on the battlefield, the administration official said. The official asked not to be identified by name, in line with the Obama administration’s protocol for briefing reporters.

Mr. Putin appears to be calculating that he can continue to provide military support to the separatists without triggering tough economic reprisals as long as the Kremlin denies that it is involved and avoids obvious provocations, such as sending conventional Russian military units into eastern Ukraine, U.S. officials said.

To date, the United States and European allies have imposed only limited sanctions, directed at Russian individuals or specific companies, in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea and allegations that it is linked to the violence in eastern Ukraine. The next stage would involve tougher sanctions against sectors of the Russian economy such as finance, energy and defense industries.

On Friday, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on seven Ukrainian separatists, including Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the onetime, self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, and Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

Before the cease-fire was announced, skirmishes for control of Krasny Liman, a railroad hub north of Donetsk, stretched into a second day. The Ukrainian military deployed both air and artillery strikes to oust pro-Russian separatist fighters, said Mr. Seleznyov, the military spokesman. He said seven government soldiers had been killed and 30 injured since fighting over a conduit road into the town began Thursday morning. He also said 300 rebel fighters had died in the fighting since Thursday, a figure that could not be independently verified. Mr. Seleznyov said the number was a “hard number,” not propaganda. But that figure was far higher than those provided Thursday night by rebel forces, which said their number of dead and injured was in the single digits.

Mr. Poroshenko had said he would call a unilateral cease-fire when he was ready to announce what has been advertised as a 14-point plan. Details from the initial draft that have leaked in the Ukrainian news media include some measure of decentralization, new elections and a more robust border with Russia.

This week, Mr. Putin said Ukraine had to “immediately end” military operations in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, a statement from his office said. He also told Mr. Poroshenko that the plan should make a priority of resolving the issues that led to the uprising in southeastern Ukraine, according to the statement.

Mr. Poroshenko, for his part, has emphasized that all hostages should be released, and that effective control over the border must be restored. The separatists are believed to control eight crossing points.

In appealing for broader Russian backing for the overall plan, Mr. Poroshenko was specifically seeking support for a cease-fire. Mr. Putin had expressed support for “the efforts aimed at de-escalating the situation,” the Ukrainian statement said.

In addition to speaking with Mr. Putin, Mr. Poroshenko sought counsel Thursday from political figures in eastern Ukraine outside the separatist movement, whose leaders have vowed to reject the plan.

The fighting in Ukraine this week also prompted a phone call by Mr. Putin to German Chancellor Angela Merkel  and to French President François Hollande to express his “grave concern” about Ukraine’s continuing military operations, the Kremlin press service said. The leaders also discussed the tensions caused by Russia’s decision this week to halt gas shipments to Ukraine over $4.5 billion in disputed bills.

Russia has denied any role in directing the separatist violence, but it has acknowledged that it has forces near Ukraine’s border. “Given the situation in the east, the tightening of Russian border security requires certain measures,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Rossiya 24 cable news channel. “The armed forces are being called in.” Yuri Ushakov, another presidential aide, confirmed to Russian reporters that border security was being enhanced, but said it was not a military deployment.

The senior Obama administration official told reporters that some Russian forces near Ukraine had taken up positions that “are within a handful of kilometers of Ukrainian territory, the closest that they’ve been since the invasion of Crimea.” “We also have information that additional forces are due to arrive in coming weeks,” the official added.

United States - North America - United States military - United States government - Russia - Eastern Europe - Europe - Barack Obama - District of Columbia - Ukraine - Vladimir Putin - Russia government - Angela Merkel - Russian armed forces - Donetsk - Crimea - Petro Poroshenko


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