PARIS — Amid a flurry of diplomatic consultations aimed at preserving a fragile cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that Russia faced the prospect of toughened sanctions unless it took steps over the coming “hours” to pressure armed separatists in eastern Ukraine to give up the fight.
Kerry’s warning added new pressure a day before a European Union meeting in Brussels during which leaders were expected to consider imposing more economic sanctions on Russia, and in which Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko was expected to sign a free-trade accord that his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, scuttled last fall, setting off months of civil unrest.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin has voiced support for the cease-fire and for peace talks between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatist rebels, the United States has expressed doubts that Mr. Putin is genuinely committed to ending the violence.
“We are in full agreement that it is critical for Russia to show in the next hours, literally, that they are moving to help disarm the separatists, to encourage them to disarm, to call on them to lay down their weapons and begin to become part of a legitimate political process,” Mr. Kerry said after meeting in Paris with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
In a news conference Wednesday at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Mr. Kerry also warned that sanctions were being prepared. But it was not certain that the European Union would enact new sanctions today if Mr. Putin failed to take major steps to defuse the conflict.
While Mr. Fabius made a point similar to Mr. Kerry’s, saying “commitments” had been made on “de-escalation” of the crisis in a lengthy four-way call Wednesday between Mr. Putin and the leaders of Germany, France and Ukraine, he offered a longer time frame, adding that France hoped that these promises would be fulfilled “today and in the coming days.”
Although the United States has been vocal in threatening additional sanctions, its European allies are juggling competing concerns, including business interests in their own countries, which have far more economic dealings with Russia than does the United States. Mr. Putin has also been adept at taking limited steps that have stirred debate among the Europeans about the need for tougher sanctions.
In Ukraine, sporadic skirmishing between government forces and rebels continued in the east Thursday, including a firefight near a strategically important airfield in Kramatorsk. The cease-fire has been tentative at best, and Mr. Poroshenko said Wednesday that 18 government soldiers had been killed by rebels since he ordered the halt in military operations last Friday.
Former President Leonid M. Kuchma, who was tapped by Mr. Poroshenko to coordinate talks with the rebels, said Thursday that another meeting aimed at resolving the conflict would occur today. After the first session Monday, rebel leaders agreed to adhere to Mr. Poroshenko’s cease-fire, but that truce is to end tonight.
Kiev has refused to call the talks “negotiations,” because Mr. Poroshenko has said he will not bargain with leaders of the violent rebellion. In a statement Thursday, Viktor Medvedchuk, a former chief of staff to Mr. Kuchma and personal friend of Mr. Putin’s, who has helped arrange the talks, urged Mr. Poroshenko to rethink that view. “It is important to understand that to have a truly productive dialogue, negotiations should be conducted with those who really control the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk and the armed resistance,” Mr. Medvedchuk said.
He added: “Kiev, inviting to the negotiating table only government officials and political elites, should ask a simple question: Can they enforce signed memorandums? If not, then the peace plan will be another unviable initiative by the central government.”
Following up on the Wednesday conference call, Mr. Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke again by phone Thursday. In a statement, the Kremlin said the two leaders had discussed how to monitor compliance with terms of the cease-fire as well as “the need to extend the truce, to organize a regular contact group and to release the individuals held by force.”
Mr. Poroshenko on Thursday said pointedly that Russia had not yet done enough to end the violence and implement a peace plan, and that it was still allowing fighters and arms to cross the border into Ukraine. “Sadly, so far, Moscow’s support has been insufficient,” Mr. Poroshenko said in a speech in Strasbourg, France, to European lawmakers. “From this podium, I urge Russia once again to resolve the situation. Please support the peace plan with deeds and not just words. With deeds, we can stop the deaths of civilians and military people.”
“We await these actions,” he added. “Strengthen the border control; stop the illegal infiltration of military vehicles into Ukraine. Stop recruiting mercenaries, and finally pull back military forces from the border. The people of Ukraine do not want war or anarchy.”
The agreement to be signed today by Mr. Poroshenko calls for establishment of a “deep and comprehensive free-trade area” between Europe and Ukraine.The goal, according to European Union documents, is to “significantly deepen political and economic ties between the signatories with a long-term perspective of closer political association and economic integration.”United States - North America - Russia - Eastern Europe - Europe - France - Western Europe - John Kerry - Paris - Laurent Fabius - Germany - Ukraine - North Atlantic Treaty Organization - Vladimir Putin - European Union - Russia government - Angela Merkel - Viktor Yanukovych - Ukraine government - Donetsk - Petro Poroshenko