Moscow: US President Barack Obama will arrive in Europe with his NATO allies anxious to see him send a shot across the Kremlin's bow on Ukraine, after Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Sunday for immediate talks on the "statehood" of southern and eastern parts of the country.
Putin calls for 'statehood' in eastern Ukraine
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Putin calls for 'statehood' in eastern Ukraine
Russia's President Putin calls for immediate talks on "statehood" between pro-Russian rebels and Kiev in eastern Ukraine.
Mr Putin's spokesman later said that this did not mean Moscow now endorsed rebel calls for independence for territory they have seized.
The Kremlin leader's remarks, two days after a public appearance in which he compared the Kiev government with Nazis and warned the West not to "mess with us", came as Europe and the United States prepared possible further sanctions to halt what they say is direct Russian military involvement in the war in Ukraine.
Mr Obama will seek to make it clear at his first stop, Estonia, that NATO views its Article Five creed on common defence as inviolate.
"There is a perception in Eastern Europe and in the Baltics that Putin poses not just a threat to Ukraine, but he does actually pose a long-term threat to NATO, because his long-term strategic goal in this view is to undermine the US alliance system in Europe, or to show that it's hollow," said Thomas Wright, of the Brookings Institution.
"The best way of doing that is to show that Article Five is hollow . . . If he can prove that in one instance, he basically discredits Article Five for NATO for as a whole, and he would discredit NATO as a whole."
Mr Obama previewed his firm message to the Kremlin in Washington last week, while drawing a distinction between the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and non-NATO member Ukraine.
Germany aired suspicions that Moscow might be trying to create a land corridor to supply Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in March, while the four-month conflict moved onto the sea for the first time on Sunday. The separatists said they had fired on a Ukrainian vessel in the Azov Sea using land-based artillery, and a military spokesman in Kiev said a rescue operation was under way.
"We must strive toward implementing the plan we agreed upon," Mr Putin said. "We must immediately commence substantive talks and not only on technical issues, but also on the political organisation of society and the statehood status of south-east Ukraine in order to serve the interests of people living there."
Although Mr Putin said he has an agreement with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on a peaceful solution for the conflict, it's impossible to predict when the crisis will end as the situation in Ukraine is complicated by the political campaign ahead of October 26 parliamentary elections, he said in the TV interview.
Those who expect Ukrainian rebels to sit and wait for talks while the area is torn by fighting are captives of their illusions, Mr Putin said.
After Mr Putin mentioned "statehood" his spokesman Dmitry Peskov later told reporters that Mr Putin isn't seeking "statehood" for the region.
Yet one analyst, Lilit Gevorgyan, senior analyst at IHS Global Insight in London said Mr Putin's statehood statement isn't surprising and is "in line with Moscow's plans of creating an autonomous region in eastern Ukraine that potentially will have a right to self-determination, which could then be a leverage on Ukraine, particularly in preventing the country from joining NATO."
Pro-Russian rebels attacked the two Ukrainian coast guard cutters while they were patrolling the Sea of Azov near Novoazovsk, Ukraine's military said without elaborating. At least one of the ships was on fire, Mariupol, Ukraine-based news website 0629.com.ua reported. Six border troops from the vessels were injured and taken to hospitals in Mariupol, a port city, tsn.ua, the news service of Ukraine's 1+1 television channel reported.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she opposes sending arms to Ukraine because it would be a signal the conflict has a military solution. Almost 2600 people have been killed so far, the United Nations said.
"The situation has very much escalated over the last two days and if this continues we will decide on further sanctions within the week," Ms Merkel told reporters in Brussels.
The US welcomed the EU's decision to prepare more sanctions against Russia and is working closely with the bloc and other partners to "hold Russia accountable for its illegal actions in Ukraine, including through additional economic sanctions," Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said in a statement today.
The administration called on Russia "to immediately" remove its military from Ukraine and end supporting the separatists, according to the statement. Russia denies that it's involved in the fighting in the neighbouring country.
Mr Poroshenko told reporters at the EU summit in Brussels that "we are close to the point of no return."
The EU and the US have already slapped visa bans and asset freezes on Russian individuals and companies, and since July have imposed steadily tougher sanctions targeting the country's energy, finance and defense industries.
Mr Poroshenko called for military and technical assistance for Ukraine from the EU. He said there will be a trilateral contact group meeting with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Ukrainian ex-President Leonid Kuchma and Russian ambassador Mikhail Zurabov.
Talks will focus on Ukrainian "hostages" held in Russia, the OSCE monitoring mission, and a potential cease-fire, he said.
"I cross my fingers, I hope it will be a cease-fire," Mr Poroshenko said, adding that he expects to publish a draft peace plan next week.
Russia and Ukraine exchanged captured servicemen, Andriy Lysenko, the spokesman for Ukraine's military, said.
Bloomberg, Reuters, AFP