Ukraine leader says Russian troops on the move
KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s president said Wednesday that 70 percent of Russian troops on Ukrainian territory had been withdrawn since the cease-firebegan Friday, as he vowed to introduce a bill to parliament offering more autonomy to rebellious regions in the pro-Russia east; both signs that the fragile truce could be morphing into a durable chance at peace.
Petro Poroshenko also said that 700 Ukrainian prisoners had been freed from rebel captivity, and expressed hope that another 500 would be freed by the end of the week.
He promised Wednesday to introduce a bill to parliament as early as next week that would offer greater autonomy to eastern regions, where separatists have been battling government troops for almost five months.
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Poroshenko said the regions would remain part of Ukraine and rejected the idea of federalization, something both Russia and pro-Moscow separatists have continued to push for even after a cease-fire agreement took effect Friday.
The agreement, which was 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 pro-Russian 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, coinciding with a major rebel campaign to push back Kiev’s troops.
The president admitted that “implementing the cease-fire is very difficult,” and accused separatists of “provoking” the Ukrainian troops. There have been numerous violations of the cease-fire, and Ukraine says that five servicemen have been killed and 33 injured since Friday. A volley of rocket fire could be heard in Donetsk late Tuesday, although the local city council didn’t report any casualties overnight.
Poroshenko was vague on the specifics of his bill in his speech Tuesday. But a previous peace plan laid out in June envisaged protection of the Russian language, joint patrols of federal and local police, and allowing local representatives to give their approval for governors, who are appointed by Kiev.
All of those concessions are minor in comparison to what the separatists want. Many have demanded full independence from Kiev, but even their calls for federalization of Ukraine would require local control over security forces and elections for governor.
But Poroshenko may have difficulty in formulating a bill that is palatable to both the separatists and his parliament, which is gearing up for October elections in a political climate in which the public has been largely supportive of the war in the east.