The U.S. military is leading peacekeeping exercises in western Ukraine involving 15 nations, as President Barack Obama prepares to host Ukraine's leader for talks at the White House later this week.
The Defense Department announced the 12-day exercise earlier this month, saying 1,300 personnel would take part, including 200 U.S. soldiers.
Exercise Rapid Trident, which launched Monday and will go through September 26, is being conducted near Yavoriv at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center (IPSC), approximately 60 kilometers from the city of Lviv in western Ukraine.
Even though the exercises are held annually, the deployment is the first involving U.S. ground troops to Ukraine since the crisis began there earlier this year. The Pentagon says the objective of the exercise is to increase interoperability among the United States, Ukraine and other participating nations.
Yavoriv is located approximately 1,000 kilometers from Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where Ukrainian troops have been fighting pro-Russia separatists. Skirmishes there continue despite a cease-fire agreement having been reached September 5.
Foreign ministers discuss Ukraine
Also Monday, the foreign ministers of Russia, France and Germany met in Paris to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, a French diplomatic source said.
The meeting took place just after a Paris conference on the threat of the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq and Syria, a gathering attended by ministers from 26 countries and three international agencies.
The talks came ahead of a meeting between President Barack Obama and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Washington scheduled for Thursday.
A White House spokesman said Friday that Obama and Poroshenko will discuss diplomatic ways to end the crisis when they meet Thursday, and that the talks will highlight the U.S. commitment to "stand with Ukraine" in its pursuit of democracy and stability.
While in the U.S. capital, Poroshenko is also due to address a joint session of Congress.
On the ground
Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council spokesman Monday accused separatist rebels in the country's east of attacking civilian areas they control near the government-held Donetsk Airport, and trying to lay blame for the hostilities on Ukrainian troops.
Kyiv says its troops repelled a rebel attack on the airport over the weekend. Independent observers on the scene could not say who fired the shells that hit the civilian areas.
Spokesman Andriy Lysenko blamed the rebels. Citing local residents, he said that separatists are firing artillery and missiles into residential areas in an effort to discredit Ukrainian forces. He said in some cases rebel supporters paint Ukrainian flags on missile fragments.
Officials in Donetsk say shelling has killed six people and wounded 15, as the United States calls the cease-fire between the Kyiv government and Russian-backed rebels "increasingly strained."
Shelling and gunfire was heard around the the city's airport. Truce monitors from the Organization for Security and Operation in Europe say shells landed about 200 meters from them as they inspected a market in Donetsk.
Ukrainian officials and the pro-Russian separatists blame each other for the violence.
Also Monday, the prime minister of the separatists' self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, accused the Ukrainian government of violating the cease-fire agreement signed September 5, and said further talks with Kyiv would make no sense.
Despite ongoing hostilities, the sides had their largest prisoner exchange, with 73 fighters from each side going home Sunday.
Poroshenko proposes self-rule
Meanwhile, President Poroshenko has introduced legisation which, if passed by the country's parliament, would grant those parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions currently under rebel control "special local self-governing" status for three years, a Ukrainian online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda reported Monday.
The draft law would also grant amnesty to all rebels except those who have committed "especially grave crimes," allow the Russian language to be used freely, and give local governing bodies a role in choosing prosecutors and judges.
The legislation also calls for local elections to be held on November 9.
Since the cease-fire agreement was signed, separatist leaders have said they will continue to push for independence.
Following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, many observers suspected that pro-Russia rebels, many of whom are believed to be Russian troops armed by Moscow, would attempt to establish a land corridor to connect Russian mainland with the peninsula.
Now, experts believe that rebel set-backs on the ground as well as a third round of economic sanctions the West imposed on Moscow Friday might have forced separatists to abandon efforts, at least for now, to push further along the 350 kilometer long strip of land.
“That was the plan. But, you know, it’s necessary to be mad enough to try to establish this corridor in the current situation, because then the fourth round of sanctions is nearly inevitable,” said Russian exile and military expert Igor Sutyagin, now at London’s Royal United Services Institute.
Russia has been consistently denying that it has troops on the ground in Ukraine or that it in any way supports the separatists movement in the country's east.
However, rights activists in Russia as well as groups of soldiers' mothers point to growing evidence that Russian troops are not only involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but are getting wounded or killed there.
Al Pessin contributed to this report from Kyiv. Some material for the story came from Reuters.