Russia piles pressure on Ukraine leader

June 13, 2014 - 9:06:23 am

MOSCOW: Russia accused Ukraine’s new leader yesterday of failing to follow through on his vow to end two months of separatist bloodshed and demanded a probe into claims that his forces used banned bombs against civilians.

Moscow’s latest diplomatic offensive reflects the vast challenge facing Petro Poroshenko as he tries to use the momentum of his convincing May 25 presidential election victory to overcome Ukraine’s gravest crisis since its independence from Moscow in 1991.

Poroshenko’s office said he also had “substantive and extended” talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone yesterday about ways to stop the fighting convulsing the separatist east.

The talks are the first reported between the two leaders since German Chancellor Angela Merkel got them to shake hands on the sidelines of D-Day commemorations in Normandy on June 6.

The 48-year-old chocolate baron is trying to keep the future of his splintered and nearly-bankrupt country tied to Europe while at the same time not provoking the Kremlin — already in control of the Crimea peninsula — into any more aggressive moves.

But Russia indicated that its patience with Poroshenko’s promises was wearing thin. “The lack of any progress whatsoever in efforts to stop the violence and halt military operations... is causing increasing concern,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

He pointed to Russian media claims of Ukrainian forces using incendiary bombs — designed to set off fires and used widely during the Vietnam War before being banned by the United Nations —  as “a cause for special concern”.

Ukraine’s military dismissed the banned weapon charges as “absurd” and accused Russia of allowing the rebels to send three Soviet-era T-72 tanks across its border and into the eastern zone of conflict yesterday morning.

But there was also a hint of compromise in Moscow’s tone. Lavrov observed that “there is still hope that President Poroshenko’s statement about stopping the violence will be carried out and negotiations will begin.”

And the two sides are due to send a joint humanitarian mission into the separatist rust belt today — a rare example of cooperation in a conflict that has claimed 270 lives and brought Ukraine’s most economically vital region to a standstill.

Poroshenko on Sunday made the surprise promise to end the fighting by the end of the week. His aides and a top Kremlin envoys have since had daily consultations in Kiev that produced what Ukraine said was an initial “peace plan” now requiring Putin’s formal support.

Poroshenko further hinted on Wednesday that he was ready to meet separatist leaders who had laid down their arms.

But the militants have shown no sign of abandoning their drive to have the economically-vital eastern industrial belt  come under Kremlin control.

Meanwhile there were fresh manoeuvres in the third “gas war” between the two neighbours in less than a decade, which flared up when Moscow nearly doubled Kiev’s gas rate in the wake of the February ouster of Ukraine’s Russian-backed president.

Ukraine receives half of its gas supplies from Russia and transports 15 percent of the fuel consumed in Europe. AFP