Ukraine pledges more autonomy to rebellious east

Associated Press

Kiev, Ukraine — Ukraine’s president promised Wednesday to introduce a bill as early as next week that would offer greater autonomy to the pro-Russian east, where separatists have been battling government troops for almost five months.

But President Petro Poroshenko said the regions would remain part of Ukraine and rejected the idea of federalization, something both Russia and the separatists are still pushing for even after a cease-fire that began Friday.

The cease-fire deal reached in Belarus “envisages the restoration and preservation of Ukrainian sovereignty over the entire territory of Donbas, including the part that is temporarily under control of the rebels,” Poroshenko said during a televised Cabinet meeting. “Ukraine has made no concessions with regards to its territorial integrity.”

Ukraine and the West have repeatedly accused Russia of fueling the separatists with arms, expertise and even its own troops, something Russia denies. In late August, NATO estimated that more than 1,000 Russian troops were operating on Ukrainian soil, helping to turn the tide of the war in the rebels’ favor.

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Wednesday for new sanctions against Russia, which were drawn up Monday by the 28-nation European Union but have not yet been enforced because the peace plan for eastern Ukraine has not been fully implemented. The new sanctions are expected to deepen earlier penalties targeting Russia’s energy and arms sectors and tighten Russia’s access to international loans.

Merkel told Germany’s parliament that the cease-fire has improved the situation on the ground but there was “a lack of clarity on the fulfillment” of many other points of the peace plan.

Ambassadors from EU nations were meeting later Wednesday in Brussels to discuss the sanctions against Russia.

Poroshenko has struggled to paint the Minsk cease-fire agreement — reached as the rebels waged a major counteroffensive that pushed back the Ukrainian troops who had encircled them — as a victory rather than a defeat. Poroshenko says since the agreement, 70 percent of the Russian troops in Ukraine have been withdrawn.

He also said 700 Ukrainian prisoners had been freed from rebel captivity and expressed hope that another 500 would be freed by the end of the week.

It was unclear, however, how many of those freed were soldiers rather than civilians. Col. Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security Council, told journalists that only 20 servicemen had returned home so far. In Donetsk, a rebel spokesman said a planned exchange of 36 soldiers from each side had been put off until Thursday, blaming the government for the delay.

The cease-fire has been violated numerous times and Poroshenko accused the separatists of “provoking” Ukraine’s troops. Ukraine says five servicemen have been killed and 33 injured since Friday. A volley of rocket fire was heard in the rebel-held city of Donetsk late Tuesday.

Poroshenko was vague on the specifics of his proposed bill, and it was unclear how much autonomy would be offered to the rebellious regions. But a previous peace plan laid out in June envisaged protection for the Russian language, joint patrols of federal and local police and letting local representatives give their approval for governors, who are appointed by the central government in Kiev.

All of those concessions are minor in comparison to what the separatists want, which at times as been full independence from Kiev or union with Russia, a demand that Russian President Vladimir Putin has ignored. But even conceding to demands that Ukraine become federalized would require local control over security forces and elections for governors.

Reacting to Poroshenko’s comments, the leader of the rebels in Luhansk, Igor Plotnitsky, said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the rebels would only accept secession from Ukraine.

“Neither we, nor our friends in Donetsk, are going to abandon the course to build our own state,” he said. “A temporary cease-fire cannot cancel the results of the people’s vote. People voted unanimously for the independence of our republics. There’s no way back to the previous status.”

Other rebels have been in favor of a broad autonomy.

Plotnitsky said the next round of talks between Moscow, Kiev, the insurgents and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is likely to discuss the status of the rebel-held areas.

Poroshenko may have difficulty crafting a bill that is palatable to both the separatists and his parliament, which is gearing up for a parliamentary election on October 26. The Ukrainian public has been largely supportive of the war against the separatists.