Ukraine leader calls in generals after failed peace talks

President Petro PoroshenkoUkrainian President Petro Poroshenko convened his top generals Tuesday to discuss the latest failed peace talks with pro-Russian militias, aimed at stemming clashes that saw seven troops killed in another wave of attacks.

Poroshenko has found himself trapped between Ukrainian nationalists who fear losing land to the eastern pro-Russian fighters, and Western pressure to resolve the 15-month crisis in the European Union’s backyard.

The pro-EU leader sent his personal envoy to the Belarussian capital Minsk on Monday to discuss a new weapons withdrawal agreement with rebel and Moscow negotiators.

But the European-mediated talks fell apart after more than six hours due to what one separatist said was Kiev’s refusal to move back its forces from four strategic sites.

Insurgency commanders said no new senior-level talks were likely in the next three weeks.

“We need to clearly determine a plan for strengthening our defences in case of the conflict’s escalation,” the presidency quoted Poroshenko as telling members of Ukraine’s powerful National Security and Defence Council and top ministers.

Council chief Oleksandr Turchynov — a hawkish political veteran who served as acting head of state following the March 2014 ouster of Ukraine’s Russian-backed president — reported the death of three more soldiers in overnight attacks.

Kiev said four of its troops had been killed on Monday and the fighters reported one loss in the past two days.

The Ukrainian government and its Western allies fear that the war — which has already claimed more than 6,800 lives — may turn into a “frozen conflict” in which low-level violence becomes a constant menace that leaves much of eastern Europe on permanent state of alert.

Turchynov blamed the latest clashes on Russian soldiers whom the Kremlin has repeatedly denied sending into its southwestern neighbour’s industrial heartland.

“Russia’s demonstratively provocative conduct is undermining all attempts at a peaceful solution,” Turchynov said in a statement.

– ‘Discrediting Ukraine’ –

A daily report released by monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) mentioned the “claimed” presence of Russian paratroopers at a rebel weapons storage site.

“An armed man guarding the facility at one of the sites claimed that he and those present at the site were part of the 16th airborne brigade from Orenburg, Russian Federation. They did not wear identifying insignia,” the OSCE report said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov vowed to look into the findings but expressed doubts about their validity.

“Various officials have made such claims on so many past occasions, and with every check it turned out that there was nothing concrete there,” Russia’s TASS news agency quoted Peskov as saying.

The Kremlin-run Sputnik news agency later released an English-language report stating that “there is no 16th airborne brigade in the Russian armed forces, and no Russian airborne brigades are stationed in Russia’s Orenburg region.”

It also published what it said was an official list of Russian paratrooper units that made no mention of the brigade reported to the OSCE.

An OSCE spokesman said he could add no further details to what the purported Russian soldiers had told his team.

The Kremlin has always insisted that any Russians captured or seen in the war zone were either off-duty soldiers or volunteers who had no special instructions to fight from the army.

Ukraine’s new information policy ministry — derided by critics as an ill-advised state “propaganda” agency — said the soldiers’ claim to be Russian was aimed at “discrediting Ukrainian media and the OSCE.”

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