German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a swift diplomatic resolution to the conflict in Ukraine as trucks that sparked international condemnation by crossing into the country without consent returned to Russia.
Peace plans are "on the table" as the leaders of Ukraine and Russia prepare to meet next week, Merkel said on her first visit to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, since separatist violence erupted this year. She spoke at a news conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
"Our focus cannot lie with military conflict, which unfortunately is necessary today," Merkel said. "There has to be a bilateral cease-fire. Deeds now have to follow words and I think on the Ukrainian side, much has been done."
The German leader waded into attempts to overcome the conflict as tensions spiked anew in Ukraine, which has been fractured by fighting that the United Nations says has left at least 2000 dead since Russia annexed Crimea in March. Merkel said she came to make clear Germany's call for preserving the former Soviet republic's territorial integrity.
Russia, which Ukraine and its allies blame for stoking the unrest, denies it's involved in the conflict that has triggered sanctions from the US and Europe.
Poroshenko, speaking alongside Merkel, said he will present a position coordinated with the European Union when he meets Russian President Vladimir Putin next week in the Belarus capital Minsk. The two will attend a summit of the Customs Union, a Russia-dominated trade bloc.
"It's time for peace to come," Poroshenko said.
Progress at the Minsk talks will be difficult because the parties remain entrenched in their positions over the conflict, according to Oleksandr Sushko, head of the Euroatlantic Cooperation Institute in Kiev.
"There is much expectation for the Minsk meeting but I'm afraid it's an exaggeration," Sushko said on Saturday by phone.
"I don't see any movement toward the convergence of positions between Ukraine and Russia. Not even a hint. That's why it's very important that Ukraine and the EU will have a consolidated position. This will improve the chances for some progress."
All of about 280 trucks that carried what Russia says is humanitarian aid have returned to Russia, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, said by phone on Saturday. A total of 227 vehicles in the convoy crossed back into to Russia, the Organizations for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a statement today.
Merkel joined US President Barack Obama on Friday in calling the action a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty. A Ukrainian government official called it an "invasion."
Ukrainian border guards were unable to inspect the vehicles, said Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the country's military, adding that some of the trucks had loaded products made by the Ukrainian factory Topaz, which produces anti-artillery systems and other military equipment.
All of the vehicles returned to Russia empty, Eduard Chizikov, an official at Russia's Emergencies Ministry, said on the Rossiya 24 television channel.
Asked whether intensified sanctions against Russia were being considered, Merkel said current efforts would focus on diplomacy and next week's meeting in Minsk.
The Obama administration yesterday said Russia risks deeper punitive measures unless it removes the convoy, which the US deemed a "flagrant violation" of Ukraine's sovereignty.
"Of course, we can't rule out that we'll have to consider further sanctions if there is no progress," Merkel said.
Poroshenko announced plans for a fund that would provide 500 million euros ($662 million) to rebuild the areas of the country wracked by the fighting, which he dubbed "the beginning of the 'Merkel plan.'"
The chancellor's presence signaled her efforts to step up Germany's engagement in Europe's biggest standoff since the Cold War, a stance matched by her readiness to break with post-World War II German policy and help arm Kurdish forces in northern Iraq. Merkel, who grew up under communism in East Germany and speaks Russian, has voiced exasperation with Putin.
The visit to Kiev also carried symbolism, falling on the day before Ukraine marks the anniversary of its 1991 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. The streets of the capital were festooned with the blue-and-yellow banner to celebrate the nation's Flag Day.
"Ukrainians won't ever be divided by language," Poroshenko said at a rally. "We are a peaceful nation but we are ready to pay with sweat and blood for the right to live under the Ukrainian flag."
While Ukrainian should be the country's only state language, the nation "shall pay respect" to its Russian-speaking members "who protect Ukraine," he said. Russia earlier cited threats to the Russian-speaking community for its actions in Crimea.
Fighting continued in the country's easternmost regions, where government forces have been claiming advances in their efforts to root out the separatists, taking parts of Luhansk and encircling Donetsk, the two largest cities held by the insurgents.
Oleg Tsarev, a leader of the rebels, said on Russian state television Vesti last night from Donetsk that the rebels are now on the offensive and have retaken some villages.
Government forces are under attack near four towns and are being shelled from Russia, the Ukrainian military said on Facebook. The troops continued their assault in the past 24 hours, destroying two GRAD rocket-launcher systems among other equipment, it said. Two districts of Donetsk were shelled by artillery fire that killed three civilians, the city council said on its website on Saturday.
To contact the reporters on this story: Patrick Donahue in Berlin at firstname.lastname@example.org; Daryna Krasnolutska in Kiev at email@example.com; Anatoly Medetsky in Moscow at firstname.lastname@example.org To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at email@example.com Randall Hackley