US President Donald Trump scrapped Thursday a planned meeting at the G20 summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over Moscow’s detention of a group of Ukrainian sailors.
“Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin,” he wrote on Twitter.
“I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!,” Trump added, shortly after taking off for the weekend summit in Buenos Aires.
Rebels in Eastern Ukraine have agreed to begin to pull back heavy weapons from the front-line, a Russian general involved in implementing a truce says.
Gen Alexander Lentsov said the pro-Russian rebels had signed the orders to complete the withdrawal over the next two weeks, starting from Sunday.
It is not clear whether the move will be reciprocated by Ukraine.
This comes as Ukraine and the separatists exchanged 191 prisoners, a key part of the Minsk ceasefire deal.
It was the first step carried out successfully under the terms of the February15 agreements signed in the Belarusian capital, brokered by France and Germany.
The exchange came as US Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was considering “serious sanctions” against Russia following breaches of the truce, and that a decision would be made in the coming days.
Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said sanctions would not help solve Ukraine’s crisis.
Meanwhile, thousands of Ukrainians – as well as a number of European leaders – are expected to take part in a “dignity march” in the capital Kiev on Sunday, remembering the victims of sniper fire during protests last February.
Nearly 5,700 people have died since the fighting erupted last April Ukraine’s Eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Gen Lentsov, a Russian member of the Joint Centre for Control and Co-operation (JCCC), said: “We have designated February 22 the “D-Day” as determined by the agreement from all sides. So from Sunday we will within the period of 14 days observe the agreement on the pullback of heavy weapons.”
He said the leaders of the self-proclaimed rebel Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics had already signed the orders.
“We hope for Kiev’s participation and help first and foremost,” the general added.
The pullout process had been due to start last Tuesday and completed by March 3, but Gen Lentsov said it would now be March7.
Ukraine and rebel forces accuse each other of multiple breaches of the truce, and there were reports of violations around Donetsk and the port city of Mariupol on Saturday.
The rebels took the strategic transport hub of Debaltseve during the week in spite of the ceasefire, arguing the truce did not apply to the flashpoint town, forcing government troops to retreat.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, told Kiev to let its soldiers surrender to pro-Russian rebels, who spurned a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and fought their way on Tuesday into the town of Debaltseve, encircling thousands of government troops.
A peace deal reached at all-night talks in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, last week had all but unravelled, with both sides failing to begin pulling back heavy guns as required after the rebels refused to halt their advance.
Putin, whom Western countries accused of directing the rebel assault with Russian soldiers and weapons, said Kiev should allow its soldiers to surrender to the advancing rebels.
“I hope that the responsible figures in the Ukrainian leadership will not hinder soldiers in the Ukrainian army from putting down their weapons,” Putin said.
“If they aren’t capable of taking that decision themselves and giving that order, then I hope that they won’t prosecute people who want to save their lives and the lives of others.”
He added that he hoped the rebels would allow the Ukrainians to return to their families, once they had surrendered the town.
The US on the other side, had accused Russia of violating the Minsk agreement on Ukraine, as the UN Security Council voted unanimously to approve the ceasefire deal.
Vice-President Joe Biden said “the costs to Russia will rise” if it continued to violate the accord.
Fighting is continuing around the strategic town of Debaltseve, with pro-Russian rebels saying they are in control of most areas.
Although, the Security Council unanimously approved a Russian-drafted resolution to endorse the ceasefire deal agreed in Minsk, last week, angry words were exchanged among ambassadors.
US Ambassador, Samantha Power, said she “wholeheartedly welcomes this agreement” but said that Russia had to prove its commitment to peace.
She said: “Stop arming the separatists. Stop sending hundreds of heavy weapons across the border in addition to your troops. Stop pretending you are not doing what you are doing.”
She added: “Russia signs agreements then does everything within its power to undermine them. Russia champions, the sovereignty of nations and then act as if a neighbour’s borders do not exist.”
Mrs Power said it was “ironic” Russia had drafted the resolution while “backing an all-out assault” in Ukraine.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, said “Since the very start of the crisis, Russia has actively called for a peaceful settlement through inclusive, transparent dialogue between all sides in the internal Ukrainian conflict.”
After speaking to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Mr Biden said he “strongly condemned the violation of the ceasefire by separatist forces acting in concert with Russian forces, in and around the town of Debaltseve”.
Ukraine Government and pro-Russian separatists said they would not carry out an agreement to pull back heavy guns in east Ukraine on Tuesday, pushing a shaky peace deal closer to collapse.
Fighting had eased in many areas since a ceasefire came into force on Sunday, but the rebels have refused to halt attacks on a town where Ukrainian forces are encircled.
Monitors from the OSCE security group were expected to try to reach the besieged town, Debaltseve, after Germany said it had agreed steps with the leaders of Russia and Ukraine to ensure the observers had “free access” in the east.
The German chancellor and Ukrainian President called on the Russian President to exercise his influence on the separatists to enforce the ceasefire.”
A call by Berlin for the withdrawal of heavy weaponry to start seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, though officials from Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE and the rebels were expected to discuss implementation of the peace deal by phone.
“We do not have the right (to stop fighting for Debaltseve). It’s even a moral thing. It’s internal territory,” Denis Pushilin, a senior separatist representative, said.
“We have to respond to fire, to work on destroying the enemy’s fighting positions.”
He said: “We are ready at any time, we have everything ready for a mutual withdrawal. We will not do anything unilaterally that would make our soldiers targets.”
Ukraine’s military said on Tuesday that five soldiers had been killed and 14 wounded in the past 24 hours.
Ukraine’s military reiterated that its forces could also not start withdrawing big weapons such as heavy artillery, as set out in the deal reached at marathon talks brokered by France and Germany in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, last Thursday.
The pull-back can happen only on fulfillment of the first point of the Minsk agreements of the ceasefire.
“In the last 24 hours there had been firing so there is no ceasefire and no precondition for a pull-back of heavy weapons either.”
Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels fought fiercely across the east of the country on Friday despite a new peace deal brokered by Germany and France.
The deal, sealed by the leaders of Germany and France on Friday after 16 hours of all-night talks in Minsk, capital of Belarus, with the Russian and Ukrainian presidents, was soon overshadowed by the clashes.
The fiercest battles were over control of the town of Debaltseve, a strategic town in between rebel-held areas where separatists used rockets and artillery to attack government forces holding the town.
A ceasefire is due to come into effect from Sunday under the agreement, which also envisages a withdrawal of the heavy weapons responsible for many of the 5,000 casualties in the conflict that broke out almost a year ago.
Shelling was reported in Donetsk and Luhansk – rebel bastions near the front line where the pro-Russian rebels face government forces.
Two people were killed and six wounded when a shell hit a cafe in the Kiev-controlled town of Shchastya near rebel-held Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
“The town’s heating system is broken, power lines are damaged as well as the water supply … So this is how a comprehensive ceasefire is prepared for,” the head of the Kiev-controlled administration, Hennadiy Moskal, said online.
The rebels accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the separatist stronghold of Donetsk and the town of Horlivka, where they said on their website that three children had been killed.
A Ukrainian military spokesman said 11 soldiers had been killed and 40 wounded in the past 24 hours. “The enemy continues to build up forces in the main areas of the armed conflict.”
“Rebels are repeatedly storming the strongholds and base camp of Ukrainian forces,” in and around Debaltseve as well as firing artillery, mortars and rockets, Lysenko said, stressing that government troops had held their positions.
The United States and Europe have threatened further sanctions against Moscow if the rebels seize more territory.
Ukraine President, Vladimir Putin, has announced ceasefire after meeting all night in Belarus with leaders of Russia, France and Germany, to secure a peace deal. The leaders of Russia and Ukraine have announced that ceasefire will begin in Eastern Ukraine on 15 February.
After marathon talks with leaders of Ukraine, France and Germany, Russia President, Vladimir Putin said “We have managed to agree on the main issues.”
French President, Francois Hollande also said it was a “serious deal” but not everything had been agreed.
The meeting in Belarus – which began on Wednesday – was focused on securing a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and creating a demilitarized zone in Eastern Ukraine.
Before the meeting started, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had said that achieving a ceasefire was significant. Thousands of people have been killed and indisposed in the fighting.
Russia has been accused of arming and reinforcing pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine, a claim That was denied. The talks are set to focus on securing a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and creating a demilitarized zone.
The Ukrainian and Russian presidents barely looked at each other when they were forced to shake hands. At a family photo of the leaders, not a single person was smiling. There was even an image of Vladimir Putin inside the negotiations snapping a pencil in two.
Heavy shelling was reported in the rebel-held city of Luhansk; by a freelance reporter, Pierre Sautreuil, (in French) that a rebel military base seemed to be the target of one bombardment in the south-east of the city.
Mr Poroshenko had earlier said that the situation threatened to spin “out of control” if the parties did not agree to ceasefire.
The Ukrainian warned that his government was prepared to impose martial law, adding that the Minsk summit was one of the final chances to bring about an unconditional ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons.
US President Barack Obama has refused to rule out supplying “lethal defensive weapons” to Kiev if diplomacy fails, but Russia says that would worsen the crisis.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday that prospects for peace in Ukraine are “uncertain”, as Francois Hollande, the French President, warned it was “one of the last chances” for peace.
Merkel and French President Francois Hollande met with the Russian President in Moscow on Friday.
Speaking at a security conference in Munich, Mrs Merkel also said it was uncertain whether their talks were successful, but it was worth trying. She defended borders in Europe as “inviolable”.
She accused Moscow of showing “territorial disrespect” for its neighbour, and said international law had been violated.
Russia has shown disrespect for peace and territorial integrity, she said, and Moscow’s actions in Ukraine stand in stark contrast to their commitments.
Mrs Merkel told the summit: “We want to shape security on Europe together with Russia not against Russia.
“Russia needs to do its bit in the Ukrainian crisis as well.
“Changing borders by force is out of line with peace and security, and risks escalation”.
The French, German and Russian leaders met to begin drawing up a new proposal to end the bitter conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Mrs Merkel and Mr Hollande went to Moscow with a peace proposal discussed during a separate meeting with Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, on Thursday.
The new diplomatic push comes as a worsening conflict in eastern Ukraine is taking an increasingly heavy toll on civilians.
Merkel made clear that she would not do a deal with Russia that bypasses Ukraine’s leadership, saying she “will not decide anything over the heads of anyone”. The solution must be in line with the Minsk agreement, she said.
Russia, Ukraine and separatist leaders signed a pact, but continued fighting has left it in shreds. It’s not yet clear how the new proposal differs from the Minsk agreement.
Hollande said on Thursday that the joint proposal for new negotiations would be “based upon the territorial integrity of Ukraine”.
French President, Francois Hollande and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel announced a new peace plan for Ukraine on Thursday, flying to Kiev with a proposal they would then take on to Moscow.
The coordinated trip by Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Francois Hollande comes as rebels advanced on a railway hub held by Ukrainian troops after launching an offensive that scuppered a five-month-old ceasefire.
It comes as civilians in the key town of Debaltseve are being forced to hide underground as Ukrainian forces tried to hold out against rebel attacks.
Moscow is accused of arming pro-Russian separatists – a claim it denies.
Russia also rejects claims by Ukraine and the West that its regular troops are fighting alongside the rebels in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Clashes had left nearly 5,400 people dead since April.
Ukraine is also set to dominate an annual multilateral security conference in Munich and meetings between US Vice-President, Joe Biden and top EU officials in Brussels.
The importance of reaching a deal was demonstrated by a dramatic collapse in Ukraine’s hryvnia currency, which lost nearly a third of its value after the central bank halted daily auctions at which it sold hard currency to banks.
Moscow said it hoped talks with Merkel and Hollande would be “constructive”.
German government sources said the key problem for resuming peace talks was that the current front line no longer tallies with what was agreed at talks in Minsk, Belarus in 2014.
For talks to begin anew, Kiev would have to accept that the separatists now control several hundred square kilometers more than agreed in Minsk without Kiev having to give up its claim to these areas as part of the Ukrainian state.
In the end, the goal of the peace process should be the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Ukrainian Prime Minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, said that Kiev would not consider any peace plan that casts doubt on the nation’s territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence.
The Franco-German plan looks like an eleventh-hour bid to halt the escalation of the conflict ahead of diplomatic deadlines likely to make east-west confrontation even worse.
Peace talks collapsed on Saturday in Belarus and EU leaders are expected to consider new sanctions against Moscow next week.
Holland and Merkel met President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev on Thursday and were expected to go to Moscow to see Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Friday. Poroshenko said the talks “gave hope that there will be a result in a ceasefire”.
After signing an historic free-trade pact with Ukraine on Friday, the European Union threatened it could impose more sanctions on Moscow unless pro-Russian rebels act to wind down the crisis in the east of the country by Monday.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko came to Brussels to sign a far-reaching trade and political cooperation agreement with the EU that has been at the heart of months of deadly violence and upheaval in his country, drawing an immediate threat of “grave consequences” from Russia.
Georgia and Moldova signed similar deals, holding out the prospect of deep economic integration and unfettered access to the EU’s 500 million citizens, but alarming Moscow which is concerned about losing influence over former Soviet republics.
EU leaders meeting in Brussels demanded that, by Monday, Ukrainian rebels agree to ceasefire verification arrangements, return border checkpoints to Kiev authorities, free hostages and launch serious talks on implementing Poroshenko’s peace plan.
“We expect progress in the next hours,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. “If we don’t see any steps forward on any of the points, then we are also prepared to take drastic measures.”
EU leaders said they were ready to meet again at any time to adopt significant sanctions on Russia. Diplomats said they could target new people and companies with asset freezes as early as next week. More than 60 names are already on the list.
Although it has drawn up a list of hard-hitting economic sanctions against Russia, the EU is still hesitating over deploying them because of fears among some member states of antagonizing their major energy supplier, Reuters news agency reported.
“We are talking about possible sanctions against Russia but we do not have to introduce sanctions for the sake of sanctions. We do have a need for a dialogue. I hope this dialogue will take place and we will have a real ceasefire,” Poroshenko told a news conference in Brussels.
Poroshenko has drawn up a 15-point peace plan to defuse the crisis in eastern Ukraine, where hundreds of people have been killed in clashes between security forces and pro-Russian rebels. A week-long ceasefire is due to expire later on Friday.
Poroshenko said on Friday he would take a decision on extending a ceasefire in the east of the country when he returns to Kiev following an EU summit in Brussels.
But, according to two EU diplomats, Poroshenko told the leaders of France and Germany he was proposing to extend the ceasefire by 72 hours, coinciding with the EU’s deadline.
Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have made clear their ultimate goal is EU entry but Brussels, under pressure from voters weary of further expansion, has made no promise it will allow them in.
Ukraine’s former pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich turned his back on signing the EU agreement last November in favour of closer ties with Moscow, prompting months of street protests that eventually led to his fleeing the country.
Soon afterwards, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region, drawing outrage and sanctions from the United States and EU, and pro-Russian separatists began an uprising in eastern Ukraine.
“Over the last months, Ukraine paid the highest possible price to make her European dreams come true,” Poroshenko said, calling Friday’s accord the most important day for his country since independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991.
Symbolically, he signed the agreement with the same pen that had been prepared for Yanukovich to sign the document last year.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin immediately said the signing would have “grave consequences” for Ukraine, Interfax news agency reported.
Poroshenko urged the EU to reward Ukraine for its sacrifices by promising the country would be eligible for membership of the EU once it was ready. The pledge would “cost the EU nothing but would mean the world to my country”, he said.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said Friday’s deals were “not the final stage of our cooperation”, but this fell short of the prospect of ultimate EU membership.
Moldovan Prime Minister, Iurie Leanca, has also set his sights on EU membership, saying on Thursday that he hoped his country would apply to join in the second half of 2015.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has supported Ukraine’s presidential election that will hold on May 25, describing it as a step “in the right direction”.
But he said the vote would decide nothing unless the rights of “all citizens” were protected.
Ukraine’s PM described as “hot air” Mr Putin’s call for an independence referendum, planned this weekend by separatists in the east, to be delayed.
Mr Putin also said that Russia had pulled back its troops from the border, as tension remains high.
Moscow has said it will protect the rights of the largely Russian-speaking people in the south and east against what it calls an undemocratic government in Kiev.
Kiev has rejected pro-Russian activists’ demands for greater autonomy, fearing it could lead to the break-up of the country, and has sent in troops in recent weeks to seize back official buildings occupied by rebels.
Mr Putin suggested that Kiev’s military operation in eastern Ukraine could be halted in exchange for a postponement of the referendum scheduled to take place in several areas on Sunday.
But Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Mr Putin of “talking through his hat”.
Earlier on Wednesday, pro-Russian separatists took back the city hall in the southern port of Mariupol after it was briefly taken over by Ukrainian government forces.
President Putin made his suggestion after talks in Moscow with Didier Burkhalter, the Swiss president and current chairman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The organisers of the referendum in Donetsk – who have prepared some three million ballot papers – said they would meet on Friday to discuss his request.
On the forthcoming presidential elections, Mr Putin said: “I would like to stress that… while they are a move in the right direction, [they] will not decide anything if all the citizens of Ukraine fail to understand how their rights are protected after the elections are held.”
He also said he had pulled back Russian forces from the border with Ukraine to “places of regular exercises, at training grounds”, although Nato said it had “not seen any significant change to the disposition of troops along the border”.
The BBC reports that President Putin is not known for performing U-turns, but his latest comments on Ukraine do suggest a shift in the Kremlin’s position – which will be treated with some caution by the West.
People in the eastern and southern Ukraine have been burying their dead after the uprising saw its deadliest week since the separatist uprising began.
The country is sliding further towards war, with supporters ofRussiaand of a united Ukraine accusing each other of tearing the country apart.
Tuesday morning was quieter than past days in eastern and southernUkraine, but the deadliest week since the separatist uprising began has transformed the conflict, hardening positions and leaving little room for peace.
In Kramatorsk, a separatist-held town in the east that saw an advance by Ukrainian troops at the weekend, the coffin of 21-year-old nurse Yulia Izotova was carried through streets stilled by barricades of tires and tree trunks on Monday. Scattered red carnations traced the route.
At the Holy Trinity Church, seven priests led mourners in prayer for a woman killed by large caliber bullets, which the townsfolk believe were fired by Ukrainian troops.
“They shoot at us. Why? Because we don’t want to live with fascists?” asked 58-year-old passport photographer Sergei Fominsky, standing with his wife among the mourners. “We’re not slaves. We kneel to no one.”
In Odessa, a previously peaceful, multi-ethnic Black Sea port where more than 40 people were killed on Friday in the worst day of violence since a February revolt toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, pall-bearers carried Andrey Biryukov’s open casket from a van to the street corner where he was shot.
A pro-Ukrainian activist, Biryukov, 35, was killed during a day that began with hundreds of pro-Russian sympathizers armed with axes, chains and guns attacking a Ukrainian march, and ended later that night with the pro-Russians barricaded inside a building that was set on fire, killing dozens.
A small crowd of about 50 people stood around the body, covering it with carnations and roses. A Ukrainian flag fluttered in the wind, and a patriotic song about dead heroes was played from a sound system.
Relatives wept and a young woman fell on her knees crying loudly. The corner where the man died was decorated with flowers and small Ukrainian flags.
“The government has failed to protect its own people. The police have failed miserably,” said Nikita, a grizzled 56-year-old with a Ukrainian yellow and blue arm-band.
Sergei, in his 40s, who also came to mourn, said violence “was imported to Odessa”.
“We were proud of Odessa as a unique place where people used to live in peace, regardless of their beliefs and religion and race,” he said. “Now this is all gone.”
The surge in violence has changed the tone of international diplomacy, with even cautious European states speaking increasingly of the likelihood of war in a country of around 45 million people the size of France.
“The bloody pictures from Odessa have shown us that we are just a few steps away from a military confrontation,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in interviews published in four European newspapers.
The next few days could prove decisive: separatists in the eastern Donbass region say they will hold a referendum on secession on Sunday May 11, similar to the one that preceded Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Two days earlier, Friday May 9, is the annual Victory Day holiday celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory over NaziGermany. Moscow has been openly comparing the government in Kiev to the Nazis, and Ukrainian officials say they are worried that the day could provoke violence. In Moscow, there will be a massive parade of military hardware through Red Square, a Soviet-era tradition revived by President Vladimir Putin.