While NATO leaders met in Wales for the first session of a two-day summit on Thursday—where issues related to eastern Ukraine were among the chief topics—officials made hopeful progress towards a negotiated settlement of the conflict in the region. Both Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and key leaders of the rebel forces aligned against him announced that a cease fire could begin after a round of settlement talks scheduled for Friday.
Those talks—held in Minsk, Belarus and including the representatives from the so-called 'Contact Group,' which includes Ukraine, rebel factions, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)—have been held as series of discussions since last week when Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir met on the sidelines of regional trade talks.
While attending the NATO summit on Thursday, Poroshenko announced that if Friday's meeting in Minsk takes place and an agreement can be reached, he would “call on the general staff to set up a bilateral cease-fire, and we hope that the implementation of the peace plan will begin tomorrow.”
Poroshenko's stated willingness to entertain the truce and additional peace talks is reportedly echoed by separatist forces. According to Reuters:
Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the main rebel Donetsk People's Republic, said in a statement his men would also order a ceasefire, from one hour later, provided that Kiev's representatives signed up to a peace plan at the Minsk meeting.
There have been local agreements to hold fire, for example during the recovery of bodies from a Malaysian airliner shot down over rebel territory in July, but Thursday's announcements were the first time the two sides have called for a full truce.
Rebels still expressed scepticism. Oleg Tsaryov, a senior rebel official, told Reuters the separatist truce would depend on the government providing guarantees, "because in the past we had some ceasefire agreements Poroshenko didn't honor".
A source close to Zakharchenko said government forces bombarded Donetsk within 15 minutes of Poroshenko's announcement of the ceasefire plan: "We'll see how the talks go tomorrow but it won't be easy. All this talk of truce amid more and more shelling."
The announcements come a day after Russia's President Vladimir Putin put forward a seven-point peace plan, which would end the fighting in Ukraine's east, bring in outside monitors and aid, while leaving rebels in control of their territory.
On Wednesday, Putin put forth a seven-part settlement plan that all parties have shown at least some willingness to consider.
Speaking from the summit in Wales, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen—not generally friendly towards Russia's position on the crisis—offered his cautious acceptance of Putin's proposal.
“On [Putin’s] so-called peace plan, let me stress that we welcome all efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Ukraine,” Rasmussen said. He added, however, NATO would continue "to call on Russia to pull back its troops from Ukrainian borders, stop the flow of weapons and fighters into Ukraine, stop the support for armed militants in Ukraine and engage in a constructive political process.”
One of the key NATO measures under discussion at the Wales summit is whether or not the alliance will approve deployment of a "rapid reaction force"—what Rasmussen has called a "spearhead" against Russia—in eastern Europe. Experts have warned—and Moscow has clearly stated—that such moves by NATO would be considered provocative, but indications from the NATO leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, were that such military expansion would be approved.
Countering NATO charges that Russia's behavior near the Ukraine border should be considered "illegal" by the international community, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that the military alliance's continued bellicosity and moves to bolster its military posture along the Russian border in eastern Europe were only serving to undermine the truce efforts in Ukraine.
As the Guardian reports, Lavrov "warned on Thursday that Ukraine's Nato ambitions were threatening to derail peace talks in eastern Ukraine. In televised remarks, Lavrov said statements by senior government officials in Kiev that they would be seeking to join Nato were 'a blatant attempt to derail all the efforts' to seek a peaceful solution to the crisis."