Obama, Poroshenko meet as peace deal hopes rise
MOSCOW, Russia – Ukraine's leader Petro Poroshenko will meet with US President Barack Obama Thursday, September 18, amid hopes Kiev's conflict with pro-Russian rebels may end after Moscow hailed an offer of self-rule for the separatists.
The autonomy offer was drawn up under a peace plan backed by both Kiev and Moscow 12 days ago that has eased – but not halted – deadly violence around insurgent strongholds in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow, echoing comments by both Washington and the European Union, said it was a "step in the right direction" towards ending a conflict that has killed almost 2,900 people and sent East-West tensions spiraling.
"All of this lays the foundation for the launch of a substantial constitutional process in Ukraine including the start of dialogue with a view to facilitating national reconciliation and agreement in the country," the Russian foreign ministry said.
Ukraine's lawmakers unanimously approved the "regional status" law on Tuesday, September 16, just moments before ratifying a landmark EU pact that steers Ukraine away from Russia's sphere of influence.
President Poroshenko will cast Russia as a global menace Thursday when he meets Obama in Washington, in the hope of winning a "special status" guaranteeing his troubled nation's security.
It is the pro-West president's first tour of the White House since his May election.
Yet Obama has been saddled with too many simultaneous crises to draw the United States into a military standoff with a nuclear-armed Russia over a country with which it is sympathetic but is not part of its strategic concerns.
"We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine," Obama told US television just days after Russia completed its annexation of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March.
The United States has approved shipments of non-lethal equipment such as night vision goggles and bullet proof vests – a welcome but limited addition to Ukraine's drastically underfunded and outdated fighting force.
Capitulating to Moscow?
Ukraine's peace overture to the rebels appears to fit with what analysts see as Russian President Vladimir Putin's strategy of splintering the country to create a Russian-speaking zone that would depend more on Moscow than Kiev.
Nationalist leaders have already accused Poroshenko of capitulating in the face of Russian "aggression" that suddenly turned the tide against Ukrainian forces last month.
Deadly fighting erupted again on Wednesday around the flashpoint city of Donetsk, scene of almost daily shelling despite the ceasefire deal signed on September 5.
Donetsk city hall said two civilians were killed near a market that lies just a few kilometers away from the airport frontline and was left in ruins by another bout of deadly shelling earlier this week.
Nevertheless Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking during a visit to Addis Ababa, said "the ceasefire is holding".
'Child of war'
Many residents of the war-battered region remain deeply pessimistic that any political deals will bring an end to the bloodletting.
"I was born in 1941, a child of war, and now I will die during war. What's it all for?" said 73-year-old Tatiana Semenchenko after a rocket smashed into a building in the working class district of Kievsky.
Since the truce, around 30 civilians and Ukrainian servicemen have been killed, mostly around Donetsk, with both sides accusing the other of repeated truce violations.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk – who has accused Putin of seeking to eliminate Ukraine – declared that the armed forces would remain on "full combat readiness".
The new legislation gives three years of limited self-rule to the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk known collectively as Donbass, calls for local polls in December, and grants amnesty to rebel fighters.
It also guarantees the right for Russian to be used in all state institutions and for the regions to establish closer ties with local authorities across the border – two clauses that won Moscow's particular approval.
Both the United States and Europe hailed the legislation as a sign of Kiev's commitment to peace but demanded that Russia and the rebels live up to their side of the bargain.
Moscow has been hit by waves of punishing EU and US sanctions since its annexation of Crimea in March.
But it further unnerved its neighbors Tuesday by boosting troop numbers in the Black Sea peninsula because of the "worsening" crisis in Ukraine and the buildup of foreign troops on its border – an apparent reference to US-led war games in western Ukraine.
Pro-Moscow rebels gave the self-rule initiative a cautious welcome but also defiantly insisted it would not stop their fight for full independence as part of "Novorossiya" ("New Russia").
Donetsk "prime minister" Alexander Zakharchenko bluntly said it was up to the local authorities not Kiev to "decide what elections to hold and when".
Poroshenko's visit to Washington comes just two days after the European and Ukrainian parliaments held simultaneous votes to ratify a political and economic pact whose rejection by the former government last year set in motion the current crisis.
The Ukrainian leader said the adoption of the deal was his country's first step towards EU membership. – With Tanya Willmer in Kiev, Ukraine, Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com