TALLINN/KIEV – Ukraine’s beleaguered President Petro Poroshenko announced on Wednesday that he and Russia’s Vladimir Putin had agreed to a “permanent cease-fire” in the east of the former Soviet country.
Poroshenko’s office said the agreement was reached in a telephone exchange that was preceded only a few hours earlier by U.S. President Barack Obama’s arrival in former Soviet Estonia — a new NATO member seeking Western protection from an increasingly belligerent Kremlin.
On Thursday in Wales, leaders from the 28-nation Western military bloc are due to agree on the creation of a force made up of 4,000 troops that could be deployed within two days to meet any perceived Russian military movements in eastern Europe.
Poroshenko’s stunning announcement came more than four months into a war that has claimed more than 2,600 lives and lunged relations between Moscow and Kiev’s Western allies to their lowest level since the Cold War.
Putin and Poroshenko held a telephone exchange “that resulted in an agreement for a permanent cease-fire in Donbass (eastern Ukraine),” the Ukrainian president’s office said in a statement.
“An understanding was reached concerning steps that will help to establish peace,” the brief statement said.
Yet it was not immediately clear if rebel commanders — a loose band of mostly Russian-speakers who have no single leader and who have been making sweeping advances in recent days — were ready to either comply or disband.
The declared end to hostilities appeared to confirm Western allegations that Putin had a direct hand in the conflict even though he has denied any role and claimed he was in no position to negotiate on the rebels’ behalf.
However, Russia openly backs their drive for some form of independence from the pro-Western leaders who rose to power in Kiev after the February ouster of a Moscow-backed administration.
The Kremlin on Wednesday said only that Putin and Poroshenko had “exchanged opinions” about the crisis and gave no indication that a breakthrough had been reached.
“The views of the presidents of the two countries about possible ways out of this difficult crisis overlap to a considerable degree,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies.
Obama arrived on Wednesday in Estonia to deliver an emblematic message of unbending NATO support for new members from ex-Soviet nations rattled by Russia’s perceived actions in Ukraine.
The hostile barbs being traded by Moscow and the West in advance of Obama’s visit to Europe hardly heralded the promise of a potentially major agreement being reached on Ukraine.
Obama’s jumbo jet landed in the tiny Baltic nation — which was ruled for decades by Moscow and is still completely reliant on Russian gas — a day after the Kremlin declared NATO a “threat” over its plans to boost defenses in eastern Europe.
The Western military alliance has published satellite images purporting to show more than 1,000 Russian troops and heavy equipment moving into Ukraine’s eastern districts to help separatist fighters push back government forces and establish a ground link with Crimea — a Black Sea peninsula Russia seized from Ukraine in March.
“NATO has played a leading role and produced ample evidence to indicate that Russia has intervened in ways that grossly violate the territorial integrity of the independent nation of Ukraine,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Putin sent warning bells ringing across Eastern Europe even further by telling European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso in private exchange leaked to the press that he could capture Kiev in two weeks.
The Kremlin’s top foreign policy adviser said Putin’s comments were taken out of context and accused Barroso of breaking diplomatic etiquette by disclosing details the conversation.
Putin has wanted Kiev to grant “statehood” for the heavily Russified eastern districts of Lugansk and Donetsk.
Poroshenko had won elections in May on a vow to quickly finish off the uprising and reunify his culturally-splintered states.
But his negotiating position with both Russia and the insurgents had weakened dramatically in recent days. The government’s forces have in some cases simply abandoned their equipment and left behind old tanks as they cede huge swaths of territory that they had clawed back from the militants at a huge cost since April.
The rebels have claimed capturing hundreds of demoralized Ukrainian soldiers in their recent advance into the 500,000-strong eastern stronghold of Lugansk and the southern and eastern districts of its larger separatist counterpart Donetsk.
The daily shelling of Donetsk — a city of nearly 1 million that has seen hundreds of thousands flee — has ended due to the Ukrainian forces’ withdrawal from positions around the strategic city.
Separatist commanders have most recently set their sights on winning back control of the Donetsk airport. They shocked Kiev by pushing government troops from its Lugansk counterpart — site of both a military airfield and a civilian terminal — on Monday.