The presidents of Russia and Ukraine met late Tuesday for their first bilateral talks at a much-anticipated summit in Minsk, which many voiced hopes may help bring an end to fighting between Kiev’s forces and pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko met in the Belarusian capital, the first such meeting between the countries’ heads of state since Ukraine’s pro-Russian ex-president was ousted from power in February, according to the Ukrainian presidential administration. The meeting, which had not been previously announced by either side, was also confirmed by Kremlin.
The talks came as Ukraine said it had captured 10 Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine and shelling spread to a new front in the country’s southeast. Kiev and many Western countries have repeatedly accused Russia of providing arms and expertise to the rebels in east Ukraine, a charge Russia has denied.
While it is still unclear if the two leaders will find common ground and pave a way for peace in east Ukraine, the face-to-face meeting was a remarkable breakthrough for both sides.
Earlier, the two leaders sat on opposite sides of a large round table and were joined by the presidents of Belarus and Kazakhstan and three senior officials from the European Union. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko spoke briefly to the press late on Tuesday and said talks between the leaders were “tough,” but stopped short of saying that they had failed.
“Sadly, the situation there (in Ukraine) has gone so far that in the absence of agreements in principle any steps or technical accords are not going to lead to settlement,” he said.
Under pressure to seek a negotiated settlement and not a military victory, Poroshenko said the purpose of his visit was to start searching for a political compromise and promised that the interests of Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine would be taken into account.
“The fate of peace and the fate of Europe are being decided in Minsk today,” the billionaire chocolate magnate said in his opening remarks.
Putin devoted most of his opening statement to trade, arguing that Ukraine’s decision to sign an association agreement with the 28-nation EU would lead to huge losses for Russia, which would then be forced to protect its economy. Russia had been counting on Ukraine joining a rival economic union it is forming with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Ukraine is set to ratify the EU association agreement in September.
On the fighting, Putin said he was certain the conflict “could not be solved by further escalation of the military scenario without taking into account the vital interests of the southeast of the country and without a peaceful dialogue of its representatives.”
Ukraine wants the rebels to hand back the territory they have captured in eastern Ukraine, while Putin wants to retain some sort of leverage over the mostly Russian-speaking region so Ukraine does not join NATO or the European Union.
Poroshenko would be unlikely to agree to Russia’s frequent call for Ukraine to federalize — devolving wide powers to the regions from the central government in Kiev — but could agree to give the regions some expanded powers. Poroshenko also has spoken against holding a referendum on Ukraine’s joining NATO.
Putin has so far ignored requests from the rebels to be annexed by Russia, unlike in March, when he annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. But Associated Press journalists on the border have seen the rebels with a wide range of unmarked military equipment — including tanks, Buk missile launchers and armored personnel carriers — and have run into many Russians among the rebel fighters.
Ukraine’s anti-rebel operation said online that 10 soldiers from a Russian paratrooper division were captured Monday around Amvrosiivka, a town near the Russian border.
Ukraine’s posting included videos of five of the men. One, who identified himself as Sergei Smirnov, said they were not told anything about their mission.
“We were just traveling through fields and then we stopped in the middle of the field and the BMP2 (armored vehicle) broke down,” he said.
Asked if he knew they were in Ukrainian territory, he said: “When we got into the village we saw a tank with Ukrainian flag. Then we understood.” He said they then came under fire.
Russian news agencies quoted an unnamed official in the Russian Defense Ministry as saying the soldiers were patrolling the border and probably crossed it inadvertently.
Meanwhile, towering columns of smoke rose Tuesday from outside a city in Ukraine’s far southeast after what residents said was a heavy artillery barrage, and Ukraine accused the separatists and Russia of trying to expand the conflict.
It was the second straight day that attacks were reported in the vicinity of Novoazovsk, which is in eastern Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk region but previously had seen little fighting.
Novoazovsk lies on the Azov Sea on the road that runs from Russia to the major Ukrainian port of Mariupol and west to Crimea.
Ukraine said a small column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles crossed into Ukraine on Monday north of Novoazovsk, raising the possibility that pro-Russia separatists were aiming to take control of a strip of land that would link Russia with Crimea.
In Kiev, Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security Council, blamed Tuesday’s shelling on “Russian mercenaries.”
“Russia is trying from its side to open a new front,” Lysenko told reporters.
Local residents in Novoazovsk, some hastily packing up in order to flee, told The AP it was not clear what direction the firing had come from Tuesday.
Lysenko said there were enough forces and equipment in Mariupol to defend the city of more than 450,000. An AP reporter saw excavators digging deep trenches Tuesday. Russia reportedly has tens of thousands of troops positioned in areas near the Ukrainian border, leading to persistent concerns that Moscow could be preparing an invasion.