Russia denounces Ukraine’s call for Nato membership

Ukrainian separatists pledge ceasefire if Kiev agrees to peace plan mooted by Putin

A Ukrainian priest blesses members of a people’s volunteer corps during a rally in support of single Ukraine in  Mariupol yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Photomig

A Ukrainian priest blesses members of a people’s volunteer corps during a rally in support of single Ukraine in Mariupol yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Photomig

 

Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have pledged to call a ceasefire today if Kiev agrees to a peace plan proposed by Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The rebel leaders of the so- called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics made the offer yesterday as Nato leaders met in Wales and artillery fire boomed outside the 500,000- strong city of Mariupol, which is in government hands.

As pro-government militia vehicles raced around the port on the Sea of Azov, shelling raised pillars of smoke about 30km east towards the Russian border, where rebels with tanks hold the town of Novoazovsk.

“The militants attacked our forces with Grad rockets, trying to break through towards Mariupol. They were repulsed,” said Sergei Taruta, the Kiev-appointed governor of Donetsk region, at a pro-government “unity rally” in Mariupol.

“These are fighters who have come from Russia. They should understand that Mariupol will defend itself and be a barrier to them in eastern Ukraine,” Mr Taruta, flanked by bodyguards wielding automatic rifles, told The Irish Times.

“We are controlling the situation and understand what the enemy is trying to do. We are taking action and neutralising threats.”

Mr Taruta, a millionaire businessman, insisted sufficient men and armour were positioned around Mariupol to protect a city that lies on the main road between Russia and Crimea, which the Kremlin annexed in March.

As Nato leaders gathered, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the Ukrainian government’s recent calls to join the alliance could ruin hopes for peace.

“It’s a blatant attempt to derail all efforts aimed at initiating a dialogue on ensuring national reconciliation,” he said.

Ceasefire order
Donetsk militant leader Alexander Zakharchenko and his counterpart in neighbouring Luhansk, Igor Plotnitsky, said in a statement that this afternoon they would “give a ceasefire order if agreement is reached and representatives of Ukraine sign a plan to resolve the conflict.”

The militants said they would also present proposals on how the ceasefire should be observed at talks in Belarus today between envoys of Ukraine, Russia, the militants and the 57-state Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Oleg Tsaryov, another separatist leader with close ties to Moscow, added later: “There will be no ceasefire without guarantees because in the past we had some ceasefire agreements [Kiev] didn’t honour. We need proper guarantees because not all troops on the Ukrainian side answer to Kiev.”

“There are also battalions sponsored by the oligarchs. We don’t want any ceasefire to be used by them to recruit more people and to bring in more military equipment.”

Ceasefire plan

On Wednesday, Mr Putin unveiled a seven-point ceasefire plan calling on Ukraine and rebels to halt military action; for Kiev’s forces to withdraw to positions from which they cannot shell cities, and to stop air strikes; to allow the work of an international observer mission; to exchange all prisoners; to create humanitarian aid corridors; and to start rebuilding ruined infrastructure.

On the sidelines of the Nato summit in the Welsh resort of Celtic Manor, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko said he would call a halt to military action if envoys in Belarus accepted the peace proposals.

“Ukraine has never wanted war, is tired of war and will do everything possible to bring peace to this land,” he told Ukrainian television.

At Mariupol’s unity rally, which was attended by about 2,000 people, local lawyer Viktor (52) said he feared the port had already been abandoned to the militants.

“I don’t see enough government forces around to protect us. And unfortunately I reckon that about half the city – traitors – would welcome the Russians.”

Vika (25) disagreed: “Mariupol will fight. Ukraine has to stand and defend its freedom somewhere. We can’t keep running from Putin.”