KIEV, Ukraine — On the eve of a NATO meeting that will focus on Russian aggression, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday unveiled a seven-point peace plan for Ukraine while President Obama and other Western leaders tried to keep the spotlight on the Kremlin’s role in stoking the conflict there.
Putin announced the plan soon after arriving on a state visit to Mongolia, brandishing a notebook page on which the first point was that both sides — Ukraine and pro-Russia rebels — “end active offensive operations.”
Putin’s plan, jotted out during a plane ride over Siberia, muddied the diplomatic waters, leaving the West an excuse for delaying punitive sanctions that would also hurt European economies on the verge of a new recession. It was expected to have some appeal to war-weary Ukrainians.
The ultimate effect, coming after Russian troops intervened to help the rebels in Ukraine last week beat back a successful government offensive, may be to leave the country as a loose coalition that Russia could still dominate, which critics of the Russian president say is his real aim.
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The timing of Putin’s announcement was lost on no one: The two-day NATO meeting begins Thursday in Newport, Wales.
In Tallinn, Estonia, Obama made some of his harshest comments to date about the Kremlin’s armed intervention in Ukraine and hinted NATO might now be willing to provide military assistance to Kiev. France postponed delivery of one of two warships it is building for Russia.
Putin’s plan seemed to raise more questions than it answered. First, there was no mechanism for implementation. Second, hours earlier, his own spokesman had repeated the Russian position, widely criticized as implausible, that Moscow could not negotiate a cease-fire because it was not a direct party to the conflict.
Analysts suggested Putin’s strategy is to convince the Kiev government that it has no choice but to negotiate, not fight, and to reinforce the idea that the overall outcome depended on Moscow.
“Russia wants to show that it is in command of what is happening,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of a prominent Russian foreign-policy journal. “For Russia, it is important first to prevent the Ukrainians from thinking that they could win militarily, and to accept the separatist leaders as partners in negotiations.”
The details of the peace deal were sketchy, entangled in complicated diplomacy and domestic politics. But it was clear from various, somewhat confused and contradictory statements that Putin and the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, held an extensive discussion on the issue by telephone early Wednesday.
At first, Poroshenko’s office issued a vague announcement that the two leaders had agreed to a “lasting cease-fire.” The statement was diluted later to say only that both leaders had endorsed the need for a cease-fire and that Poroshenko hoped negotiations would begin in earnest Friday. Putin said his notes emerged from the telephone conversation.
In announcing the plan, Putin said he expected Ukraine and the separatists to wrap up an agreement after a new round of negotiations in Minsk, Belarus, on Friday. Ukraine, Russia and Europe are all party to the talks there, and they include representatives of the separatists.
Aside from the cease-fire, the plan laid out by Putin called for Ukrainian artillery to pull back and out of range of the eastern separatists’ strongholds; an end to airstrikes; an exchange of all detainees; opening up humanitarian corridors for residents of the separatist areas; repairing damaged infrastructure; and deploying international observers to monitor the cease-fire.
It made no mention of autonomy for the separatist eastern regions, the central political demand that Russia has emphasized since March. That is widely seen as critical to the Kremlin’s long-term goal of maintaining influence over Ukraine’s domestic affairs and blocking any future attempt to join NATO.
A previous cease-fire collapsed after 10 days in June, and a long line of critics, starting with Obama, gave little hope that this plan might succeed.
“We haven’t seen a lot of follow-up on so-called announced cease-fires,” Obama said at a news conference in Estonia. “Having said that, if in fact Russia is prepared to stop financing, arming, training — in many cases joining with Russian troops — activities in Ukraine and is serious about a political settlement, that is something we all hope for.”
President François Hollande of France, in a statement about the delayed delivery of the warship to Russia, said he had decided that, despite the prospects of a possible cease-fire in Ukraine, “the conditions for France to deliver the first warship are not to date in place.” The decision was one of the most concrete indications yet of the willingness of Western governments to become more assertive in confronting Russia, despite concerns that the European economy could be further hurt.
In Kiev, the idea of a cease-fire was received with mixed emotions.
There is open hostility to the idea that Russia will be able to dictate terms to its weaker neighbor after already wrenching away the Crimean Peninsula in March. Any compromise after months of condemning the separatists as “terrorists” risks weakening Poroshenko in central and western Ukraine.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called Putin’s proposal “an attempt to confuse the international community” before the NATO meeting and the expected announcement of new sanctions from the European Union.
“Putin’s real plan is the destruction of Ukraine and the resumption of the USSR,” Yatsenyuk said, according to a statement posted on a government website. Peace will come only once Russia withdraws its troops and proxy force, it said.
But many Ukrainians want an end to the violence, horrified by the mounting toll of more than 2,600 dead and uneasy about the economic costs for a country teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Winter is approaching, and the other confrontation with Russia, over gas sales, seems unlikely to be resolved while fighting rages in the east.
“We are in a situation where any kind of cease-fire would be progress,” said Olexander Scherba, an ambassador-at-large in the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. “Last week was devastating after Russia started this open invasion of Ukraine.”
Russia has repeatedly denied sending troops or arms to Ukraine, but last week, separatist forces opened a new front along the coast and broke the Ukrainian forces’ siege of the separatist centers of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russia does not fully control the separatists, nor is it clear that Kiev can automatically rein in the armed militias it has unleashed alongside its military in the east.
Vladislav Brig, a senior official in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said by telephone that the rebels expected Ukrainian forces to withdraw from the entire region as a condition for peace.
“The negotiating side here is not Russia; it is the Donetsk People’s Republic,” he said. “We will stop the offensive when Ukrainian troops leave our territory.”
Ukraine has said repeatedly that it will not contemplate a full withdrawal from the Donbass region, as the area is known. “It depends on Russia,” Scherba said. “Russia is the one that started this and can bring it to an end.”