MOSCOW (AP) — Undeterred by threats from Russia that Ukraine’s NATO ambitions would derail peace talks, Ukraine’s leader discussed closer ties with NATO at a meeting Thursday with President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders in Wales.
Russia and Ukraine say they are working on a deal to halt months of fighting in eastern Ukraine between government troops and Russian-backed separatists. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who denies supporting the rebels, spelled out a seven-point plan on Wednesday for ending hostilities and expressed hope for a breakthrough at peace talks Friday in Minsk, Belarus.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday that statements by officials in Kiev that Ukraine will be seeking to join NATO are “a blatant attempt to derail all the efforts” to seek a peaceful solution to the fighting.
Facing major challenges with conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq and a winding down of operations in Afghanistan, NATO leaders were meeting at a golf resort in southern Wales. Before the official proceedings began, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko attended a meeting with Obama and the leaders of four major European powers in the alliance: British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Later in the day, Poroshenko was to meet with the heads of state and government from all 28 NATO member states. NATO officials have made clear that membership for Ukraine isn’t in the cards anytime soon, but the alliance is expected to express solid support for Poroshenko’s government and announce an increase in nonlethal aid for Ukraine’s military.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen accused the Russians on Thursday of continued meddling in Ukraine despite Putin’s proclamation of a peace plan.
“What counts is what is actually happening on the ground,” Rasmussen said. “And we are still witnessing, unfortunately, Russian involvement in destabilizing the situation in eastern Ukraine. So we continue to call on Russia to pull back its troops from Ukrainian borders, stop the flow of weapons and fighters into Ukraine, stop the support for armed militants in Ukraine and engage in a constructive political process.”
Pro-Russian separatists have been fighting government troops in eastern Ukraine since mid-April in a conflict that the U.N. estimates has killed nearly 2,600 people.
Rebels have made substantial advances against Ukrainian forces over the past two weeks, including opening a new front along the Sea of Azov coast. That offensive has raised concerns the rebels are aiming to seize control of Mariupol, a major port of about 500,000 people, in order to secure a land corridor between Russia and Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in March.
Despite one round of peace talks this week, fighting was still intense in southeastern Ukraine.
An AP reporter saw three military-type vehicles ablaze Thursday in Berezove, a village along the road connecting Mariupol with Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city. Rebel fighters were on the move, indicating they could be trying to take control of the strategic highway. Later, columns of smoke rose outside the nearby village of Olenivka, suggesting that Ukrainian forces could be trying to retake it.
Ukraine’s National Security Council spokesman, Col. Andriy Lysenko, told reporters Thursday that 837 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed and 3,044 wounded since the fighting began in April.
Representatives of the Ukrainian government, the pro-Russian rebels, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will be gathering for more talks Friday in Minsk. Lavrov said Moscow “will insist on a cease-fire” at those talks.
Dahlburg reported from Newport, Wales. Peter Leonard in Berezove, Ukraine, Jim Heintz in Kiev, Ukraine, and Julie Pace in Newport contributed to this report.