BRUSSELS/SLAVIANSK, Ukraine: Western powers warned Russia Wednesday that they could impose new sanctions if it did not do more to defuse the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where a cease-fire between Russian-speaking rebels and government forces appeared to be crumbling.
The upper house of Russia’s parliament fulfilled a request by President Vladimir Putin to rescind the right to invade Ukraine in defense of its Russian speakers that it had granted him in March.
However, a leading lawmaker said the power could be quickly restored if required, and Western governments indicated they would judge Russia by the progress that was made in ending the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Less than 24 hours after a bilateral cease-fire was agreed, rebels shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter Tuesday, killing all nine on board. This prompted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to tell his troops to return fire if attacked, declaring that he might call off the cease-fire altogether.
A Ukrainian spokesman said the rebels had violated the cease-fire 44 times since Monday.
Moscow denies Western accusations that it has allowed fighters to cross into Ukraine along with heavy weapons to confront government forces and that it is keeping its own troops close to the border to put pressure on Kiev.
But during a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters: “I regret to say that we see no signs that Russia is respecting its international commitments.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was working with its European Union partners, who will hold a summit in Brussels at the end of this week, to prepare a new round of sanctions against Russia in case they are necessary.
Not all EU leaders back the idea, but British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that if Russia did not “stop the flow of arms across the border [and] stop supporting illegally armed separatist groups,” the case for tougher sanctions “will of course become stronger.”
The United States and the EU imposed asset freezes and travel bans on Russian and Ukrainian individuals following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March. Washington has also targeted a number of Russian firms and banks it says are linked to Putin or his close associates.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear that she, too, expected more action from Putin to support the cease-fire that was initiated by Poroshenko, which is due to expire Friday.
“Progress is slow,” she told parliament. “Diplomatic solutions are always preferable but, if nothing else works, sanctions can be put back on the agenda.”
Merkel, Putin, Poroshenko and French President Francois Hollande held a four-way phone call to discuss the crisis, where the Kremlin leader called for the cease-fire to be extended.
Poroshenko announced in Kiev that he planned to present a bill on increased regional autonomy to parliament Thursday, but gave no details of what it contained.
However, with public pressure growing for a response to the downing of the helicopter, it was not clear that he would be able to keep hopes of a peace process alive beyond the end of the week.
Aleksander Boroday, self-styled prime minister of the rebel “Donetsk People’s Republic,” who signed up to a cease-fire at a meeting Monday, told a news conference in the eastern city of Donetsk:
“There is no cessation of fighting. There are numerous cease-fire violations practically along the whole front line. ... Our adversary is actively redeploying forces.”
He said he saw no sense in negotiations, adding: “No further contacts are taking place, nor are more expected.”