KIEV: The Ukrainian government launched talks Wednesday on decentralizing power as part of a European-backed peace plan but did not invite its main foes, the pro-Russia insurgents who have declared independence in the east.
That deliberate oversight left it unclear what the negotiations might accomplish.
In his opening remarks, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said authorities were "ready for a dialogue" but insisted they will not talk to the separatists who have seized buildings and fought government troops across eastern Ukraine.
Turchynov chaired the first in a series of round tables with spiritual leaders, lawmakers, government figures and regional officials as part of a peace plan drafted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a security group that also includes Russia and the United States.
"Let's have a dialogue, let's discuss specific proposals," Turchynov said, "But those armed people who are trying to wage a war on their own country, those who are with arms in their hands trying to dictate their will, or rather the will of another country, we will use legal procedures against them and they will face justice."
The OSCE road map aims to halt fighting between government forces and pro-Russia separatists in the east and de-escalate tensions ahead of Ukraine's May 25 presidential vote. It lets the Ukrainian government decide the specifics of the talks.
The Ukrainian leader also said the government would not stop its offensive to retake eastern cities now under the control of the separatists who declared independence Monday in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, home to 6.6 million people.
Insurgents in the east shrugged off the round table as meaningless.
"We haven't received any offers to join a round table and dialogue," Denis Pushilin, an insurgent leader in Donetsk. "If the authorities in Kiev want a dialogue, they must come here. If we go to Kiev, they will arrest us."
Even so, European officials applauded the start of the talks. The EU's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, welcomed the round table on his Twitter account, voicing hope the next meeting would take place in eastern Ukraine.
Sawsan Chebli, a spokeswoman for German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Ukraine's acceptance of the round-table format was a step in the right direction, whether the pro-Russia separatists were invited or not.
"We are of the opinion that this national dialogue will help to de-escalate the situation," she said.
The OSCE itself would not comment on the invitee list.
Russia has strongly backed the OSCE road map while the United States, which says it's worth a try, views its prospects for success with skepticism.
Ukraine and the West have accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, where insurgents have seized administrative buildings, fought government forces and declared independence for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Dozens have died in the scattershot fighting across the east. On Tuesday, the Defense Ministry said six soldiers were killed and nine wounded in a rebel ambush near the city of Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region - the deadliest attack on the Ukrainian military since the offensive began last month.
Defense Ministry spokesman Bohdan Senyk said about 30 gunmen lined both sides of a road and used rocket-propelled grenades to knock out military vehicles in a battle that raged for an hour. On Wednesday morning, AP journalists saw the charred carcasses of a Ukrainian armored personnel carrier and a truck at the clash site.
Defense Minister Mykhailo Koval claimed that the insurgents were being aided by Russian servicemen.
"Russia has waged an undeclared new-generation war in Ukraine. The neighboring country has unleashed a war using units of terrorists and saboteurs," he said.
He said some of the men who had besieged a Ukrainian military base in the east openly introduced themselves as officers of Russia's 45th Airborne Regiment.
Russia has vehemently denied involvement.
On Wednesday morning, about 15 men with automatic weapons arrived at a military base in Donetsk and demanded that the soldiers pledge allegiance to the self-proclaimed rebel Donetsk People's Republic, said Viktoria Kushnir, a spokeswoman for Ukraine's National Guard. The men blocked the base's gate with a truck for half an hour but the servicemen eventually persuaded them to go, Kushnir said.
The OSCE plan calls on all sides to refrain from violence, an amnesty for those involved in the unrest, and talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. It envisages a quick launch of high-level round tables across the country.
But Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebiynis lamented that the OSCE plan does not specifically oblige Russia to do anything.
In Moscow, Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the lower house of the Russian parliament, said Wednesday that the Ukrainian authorities' refusal to speak to their foes and the continuing military operation in the east will undermine the legitimacy of Ukraine's May 25 presidential vote.
But in an important change, he added that the failure to hold it would be even worse.
"It's hard to imagine that this election could be fully legitimate," Naryshkin said on Rossiya 24 television. "But it's obvious that the failure to hold the election would lead to an even sadder situation, so it's necessary to choose the lesser evil."
Moscow had previously called for postponing Ukraine's presidential vote, saying it must be preceded by a constitutional reform that would turn Ukraine into a federation. It has recently taken a more conciliatory stance, reflecting an apparent desire to ease what has become the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War.
The insurgents in Luhansk have already said they won't allow the presidential ballot to be held and Pushilin, the Donetsk rebel leader, said they will try to prevent the presidential vote from taking place.
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, among those running for president, criticized the authorities for failing to engage their opponents and urged the government to move the round tables from Kiev to Donetsk.
But that wouldn't be enough for many of the insurgents.
"The government in Kiev does not want to listen to the people of Donetsk," said Denis Patkovski, a member of pro-Russia militia in the eastern city of Slovyansk. "They just come here with their guns."