MOSCOW/VIENNA: President Vladimir Putin asked Russia’s Upper House yesterday to revoke the right it had granted him to order a military intervention in Ukraine in defence of Russian-speakers there.
Minutes before he spoke, Kiev said pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine had shot down a military helicopter, most likely killing all nine on board. It was the most serious breach of a temporary truce agreed in talks between government and rebels less than 24 hours earlier.
Putin’s move received a cautious welcome in the West as a sign Moscow was ready to help engineer a settlement in Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking east, where a pro-Russian uprising against Kiev began in April.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called it a “first practical step” following Putin’s statement of support last weekend for Poroshenko’s peace plan for eastern Ukraine. But Putin himself said he now expected Ukraine to begin talks on guaranteeing the rights of its Russian-speaking minority, which Russia would continue to defend.
“It is not enough to announce a ceasefire,” he told reporters on a visit to Vienna. “A substantive discussion of the essence of the problems is essential.”
In the March 1 resolution, the Federation Council had granted Putin the right to “use the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces on the territory of Ukraine until the social and political situation in that country normalises”.
That resolution, together with Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, helped push East-West relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War and led the United States and Europe to impose sanctions on Moscow.
The Federation Council was due to discuss its reversal today and was expected to approve the proposal.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said: “We expect Russia to withdraw its troops and military infrastructure from the Ukrainian border, end its support for armed separatist groups, and the flow of weapons and mercenaries across its border, as well as denounce publicly separatist violence in Ukraine.”
A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton declined comment when asked whether Putin’s move would reduce the likelihood of tougher sanctions being agreed at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday.
The White House welcomed Putin’s backing for the ceasefire, but said there must be “tangible actions” to defuse the crisis.
Even the limited sanctions already imposed by Washington and the EU have chilled investor sentiment in Russia at a time when its economy is already on the brink of recession.
However, signs that the crisis in eastern Ukraine may be easing have helped markets regain ground. There was no word on the progress of peace talks, at which Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe are represented alongside rebel leaders and Kiev’s representative, former president Leonid Kuchma.
But it was clear that the ceasefire, due to expire on Friday morning, was under heavy strain.
The Ukrainian helicopter downed near the rebel stronghold of Slaviansk was carrying technicians who were installing equipment to monitor violations of the peace plan, the government said.