MOSCOW, Russia — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday called for a unilateral ceasefire in his government’s military campaign against separatist insurgents in eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko’s proposal, which would offer amnesty to rebels who lay down their weapons as well as an exit corridor for armed Russian mercenaries, follows several days of heightened tensions between Moscow and Kyiv, and marks his first full-fledged effort at ending the region’s violence.
But it’s unclear whether the separatists, who say they’re fighting a “fascist” government intent on oppressing Russian-speakers, will heed his proposal, which Poroshenko said would offer a very brief window of time, local news agencies reported.
Denis Pushilin, one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic separatist group, called Poroshenko’s plan “meaningless” and “populist peacemaking.”
“Here is what happens: they cease fire, we disarm, and they take us unarmed,” he told the Russian television network TV Rain.
The situation in eastern Ukraine has intensified in recent days after a rebel attack on a Ukrainian military plane last weekend killed 40 soldiers and nine crewmembers.
It’s also resulted in an escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine, partly fueled by the alleged incursion last week by tanks from Russia into eastern Ukraine and an attack by protesters against the Russian Embassy in Kyiv over the weekend.
Scandalous comments by Ukraine’s foreign minister — in which he referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “dickhead” — and the death of two Russian reporters in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday have contributed to the bad feelings.
The focus of attention has turned to a bitter natural gas dispute between Moscow and Kyiv in which the Russian state-controlled energy giant Gazprom cut all gas supplies to Ukraine on Monday.
The third shutoff in eight years came after Kyiv missed a deadline to pay a nearly $2 billion tab it says is too high.
It was followed by the mysterious explosion of a natural gas pipeline in central Ukraine on Tuesday that prompted fears of sabotage among Kremlin critics.
The explosion, which Ukraine’s interior minister said was caused by a bomb, prompted Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk to claim the act was aimed at “damaging trust” in the country’s gas transit system, which provides Europe with around 20 percent of its gas from Russia.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has had several discussions with his Ukrainian counterpart about the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine — most recently on Tuesday — the Kremlin has shown little outward indication it wants the violence to stop.
Moscow has consistently stated it neither controls nor has any real influence over the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, which has been aided by foreign fighters from Russia who filter through the porous border.
On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chided Ukraine’s leadership for failing to act on its previous promises of dialogue, calling the government’s anti-rebel campaign “ethnic cleansing.”
“Instead of the ceasefire promised by President Poroshenko, we have heard people in Kyiv calling for only a temporary ceasefire so that so-called separatists can leave the territory of Ukraine,” he said.
“This is not a national dialogue, or negotiations with the regions, this is ethnic cleansing.”
Tensions intensified further on Wednesday after Russia’s Investigative Committee launched criminal cases against Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch and regional governor who has supported special anti-separatist battalions in eastern Ukraine.
They have been charged with “organizing murders, using banned means and methods of warfare, abducting people and preventing legal journalistic activities,” the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported, citing investigators.
But some experts say Moscow’s use of the gas card — traditionally one of its main foreign policy mechanisms — signals the Kremlin may be looking to disengage from an increasingly brazen separatist insurgency.
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Although Russia has largely thrown its moral support behind the rebels since the start of the crisis in April, it refused to recognize the separatists’ referenda on independence in May and has ignored calls by the rebel leadership to send peacekeepers.
Meanwhile, a patchwork of armed separatist groups has filled eastern Ukraine’s power vacuum. They roam with increasing impunity and their confrontations with Ukrainian security forces have resulted in an ever-mounting death toll as well as a steady stream of civilian refugees.
Pavel Baev, a Russian foreign policy expert at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, suggests Putin is becoming more uncomfortable with the insurgency and has resorted to gas diplomacy as Moscow’s primary source of leverage over Kyiv.
“There is a need to shift attention somewhere else, and I think the gas game is probably the best possible option he has to shift this situation away from the point where he feels he is trapped,” he said.