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Ukrainian Strife Takes A Turn Toward Peace, In A Confusing Way


The conflict over Ukraine took another unpredictable turn today. Russian President Vladimir Putin issued what he said is a plan for peace. Putin called on militants supported by Russia and eastern Ukraine to stop their advance and for the Ukrainian military to pull its artillery back from populated areas.

NPR's Corey Flintoff joins now from Moscow to talk about what all this may mean. And Corey, what exactly did happen today? It's a bit confusing. Maybe you could give us a timeline.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: It was confusing, Audie. First of all, Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko's office issued a statement saying that Poroshenko had reached a cease-fire agreement with President Putin. Then Putin's spokesman shot back that there was no such agreement and there couldn't be one because Russia's not a party to the conflict in Ukraine.

CORNISH: And we should know that that's a direct contradiction of what Ukraine and the United States and NATO have been saying for weeks, right? That Russia is actually providing direct support to militants and that Russia has in fact sent troops to Ukraine.

FLINTOFF: Exactly. But Putin's spokesman did say one intriguing thing and that was that Putin and Poroshenko had agreed on, and I'm quoting here, "steps that would be conducive to a cease-fire."

CORNISH: Now so far, this has all been between Ukraine and Russia - Russia, which claims it's not involved. What about the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine?

FLINTOFF: Well, they chimed in almost immediately. And they said that the only way for there to be peace would be if Ukraine withdrew its troops from what they called their territory. And it seemed at that point that this was just another round of rhetoric. But then, President Putin came out with what he said is a seven-point peace plan. He was on a visit to Mongolia today and he said he thought the plan up while he was on his plane flying to Ulan Bator. The first step, he said was, for the militants in eastern Ukraine to stop advancing in the two areas where they've declared these independent republics. The second step would be for the Ukrainian troops to withdraw beyond artillery range of the major cities.

CORNISH: Corey, there have been attempts at declaring a cease-fire in the past, but each side was calling for conditions that the other side wouldn't accept.

What would keep this proposal from falling apart?

FLINTOFF: Well, this time Putin said he expects a final agreement when the Ukrainian government meets the militants at peace talks that are said to be held on Friday in Belarus. And if that's true it could be the first official face-to-face meeting between the militants and Ukrainian government officials. That could mean that Ukraine is ready to make some major concessions that Russia's been demanding, including recognizing the militants and starting talks about autonomy for the eastern provinces.

CORNISH: But President Poroshenko has always referred to the militants as Russian-backed terrorists and refused to deal with them. And it was a couple weeks ago that it looked as if the Ukrainian army was close to a military victory.

What happened there?

FLINTOFF: In the short term, I think the Ukrainian government would say that Russia stepped in just in time to turn the tide and save the militants from defeat. Just a couple of days ago, Poroshenko said that Ukraine was on the brink of a full scale war with Russia and everybody knows that that would be a war that Ukraine can't win. In the longer term, Ukraine's economic crisis is getting worse and worse. And finally, it's just not clear that the U.S. or Europe is willing to go very far to support Ukraine.

CORNISH: And possibly we'll hear more about that tomorrow when president Obama and the other NATO leaders meet in Wales. But what's the reaction in Russia to NATO's talk about a rapid reaction force and repositioning troops?

FLINTOFF: President Putin's national security adviser said yesterday that Russia's revising its military doctrine to counter what it considers to be the threat of NATO military expansion in Eastern Europe. And just today the state-run media carried a report that the Russian military will stage war games this month with the units that are responsible for Russia's nuclear weaponry. So that's all part of a military buildup that Russia says is a response to NATO's plans.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff speaking with us from Moscow.

Corey, thanks so much.

FLINTOFF: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corey Flintoff