KIEV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed support Saturday for Ukraine’s unilateral cease-fire in its battle against pro-Russia separatists and appealed to both sides to halt all military operations.
But he warned that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s blueprint for peace would not be viable without action to start peace negotiations.
The qualified Russian backing for Poroshenko’s effort to halt the conflict was another in a series of shifting Kremlin moves and statements that leave unclear the level of Moscow’s commitment to de-escalating the conflict.
Putin’s conciliatory words came the same day he ordered large-scale military exercises that NATO criticized as likely to raise tensions. U.S. officials also accused Russian troops of moving back into positions near the border with Ukraine’s troubled east.
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The Kremlin said in a statement that Putin “calls on the opposing sides to halt any military activities and sit down at the negotiating table.”
The statement said Putin supported Poroshenko’s decision to order Ukrainian troops to observe a unilateral cease-fire that started late Friday.
But it added that Putin wanted to draw “attention to the fact that the proposed plan, without practical action directed at a beginning for a negotiating process, will not be viable or realistic.”
Poroshenko bills the cease-fire as designed to inspire a wider peace plan that would include an amnesty for pro-Russia separatist fighters who disarm.
Further steps would include joint security patrols, a buffer zone on the border, early regional and parliamentary elections, protections for the language rights of people who use Russian as their main language, and eventually changes in the constitution to permit more regional self-government.
Ukrainian troops have struggled for weeks to suppress separatists who have seized buildings and declared independence in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions near the border with Russia.
U.S. analysts greeted Putin’s support for the cease-fire with skepticism.
“The Russian side wants to avoid the imposition of further Western sanctions by saying that it supports a cease-fire, but you have to focus on Russian actions, not words,” Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, said in an email.
“As usual, Putin is trying to destabilize the situation in Ukraine and weaken the new government, while seeking to avoid sanctions from the West,” said Robert Orttung, assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian studies at George Washington University, also in an email.
Russia had originally dismissed Ukraine’s declaration of the cease-fire, spurring officials from the European Union and Germany on Friday to call on Putin — before he issued his latest statement — to support the peace plan.
Ukraine and the United States have accused Russia of supporting the insurgency, including by permitting tanks to cross the border and wind up in the rebels’ arsenal. Russia counters that it is not supporting the insurgents and Russians who have joined the fighting are doing so as private citizens.
U.S. and European leaders have called on Russia to play a constructive role in settling the conflict and halt what they say is support for the rebels. The U.S. and European Union have imposed financial sanctions on specific Russian officials but have held off on targeting entire economic sectors.
It remains unclear whether Russia can or will influence the pro-Russia fighters to de-escalate the conflict. Putin has talked with Poroshenko several times by phone on the Ukraine cease-fire initiative, but earlier Russian statements on the peace plan had criticized it sharply as an “ultimatum” seeking to pressure rebels to disarm.
The more open-minded tone of the latest Kremlin statement contrasted with Putin’s move Saturday to order military forces in central Russia to go on combat alert and to launch an exercise for airborne troops.
The combat alert in the central military district, which encompasses the Volga region and the Ural mountains but not western Russia, will last until next Saturday and involve 65,000 troops, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu on Saturday lamented Moscow’s military exercises, saying they “can be seen as a further escalation of the crisis with Ukraine.”
Pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine’s embattled east have dismissed the cease-fire as fake and continued to shoot at Ukraine border positions after the truce began.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said six troops were wounded in attacks on border posts shortly before the truce’s start, while three others were wounded in later mortar and sniper attacks on two posts.
Nonetheless, no large-scale fighting was reported Saturday, the first full day of what is to be a 6½-day stand-down by the Ukrainian military ending Friday morning.
In Donetsk, a group of armed men gathered Saturday in the central square to take a military oath to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Material from Bloomberg News is included in this report.