The presidents of Russia and Ukraine on Monday agreed to work on establishing a bilateral ceasefire between Kiev and pro-Moscow separatists, just hours before a repeatedly violated unilateral truce is set to expire.
The telephone call between President Petro Poroshenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin also included Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s François Hollande.
Poroshenko has already extended the current ceasefire from seven days to 10 as part of a peace plan to end the conflict that has killed more than 400 people. National security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said the decision would come before the ceasefire expires at 10pm local time.
The current ceasefire has been continuously broken, however, and rebels have not laid down their weapons as Poroshenko had demanded.
French officials said the phone call touched on establishing a full ceasefire by both sides, having international monitors on the border between Russia and Ukraine, freeing prisoners and holding substantial talks with Ukraine’s separatist rebels.
The Kremlin said foreign ministers from the four countries would carry the four-way talks – a distinct cold shoulder to efforts from the United States or the full European Union to be further involved in Ukraine’s protracted crisis.
European leaders have urged Russia to use its influence with the rebels to de-escalate the conflict. They have said they could impose another round of financial sanctions against Russia if the conditions for a continuing ceasefire are not met. The four leaders had also talked on Sunday.
Fighting still flares
Sporadic fighting still flared Monday despite the ceasefire. Shelling killed at least two people and ruined several apartments in the rebel-held city of Slaviansk in the eastern region of Donetsk.
Poroshenko has demanded that rebels return posts along the Russia border to Ukrainian control and allow international monitors to verify the ceasefire. Rebels in the past have kidnapped several teams of monitors.
Poroshenko says his unilateral ceasefire is a first step to give rebels a chance to lay down their arms. Further steps would include an amnesty for separatists who have not committed serious crimes, early local elections and changes in the constitution to decentralize power to Ukraine’s regions.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry blamed the attack on Ukrainian soldiers and demanded an objective investigation.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine began after a protest movement among those seeking closer ties with the EU prompted President Viktor Yanukovich to flee in February. Calling it an illegal coup, Russia seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in March, saying it was protecting Russian speakers. The insurrection in the east began shortly afterward.
Ukraine signed a trade and political deal with the EU last week, the one that Yanukovich had rejected.