KIEV (AFP) – Ukraine and pro-Russian in-surgents prepared Monday for their first comprehensive truce talks in three months aimed at calming an upsurge of violence that has further eroded trust between Moscow and the West.
Local authorities have reported the death of at least 11 civilians over a bloody weekend in which government forces and organised militias exchanged volleys of Grad rocket fire across the devastated industrial east.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel – once one of Europe’s more moderate voices on Russian affairs – blamed the unrest on attempts by an increasingly isolated Kremlin to halt east European states’ drive toward the EU.
Russia’s violation of “the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine must not be allowed to stand”, Merkel told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper.
She also defended the sanctions that Brussels and Washington have slapped on Russia for its alleged attempts to splinter its western neighbour in reprisal for the February ouster of a Moscow-backed pre-sident.
Russia has struck back by banning Western food and imposing other re-strictions that have hurt European
farmers and provoked a minor rebellion from businesses in countries such as Ger-many.
The diplomatic war of words and jostling for position has intensified as the prospect of new Ukrainian peace talks nears.
“The desire to rip (ex-Soviet republics) away from Russia has always been one of America’s top foreign policy priorities,” Russian Deputy Foreign Sergei Ryabkov told a session of parliament.
“But since the start of the year, this desire has surfaced with renewed strength and in an especially aggressive manner,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Ryabkov as saying.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is hoping that a calm in the east can help him focus on pushing through long-delayed economic legislation that could dig the country out of effective bankruptcy and open the way for more global aid.
He has proclaimed Tuesday to be a “day of silence” across the war zone that will be followed by a withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line – should the separatists also put down their guns.