THE STATE DEPARTMENT —
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is praising the efforts of key world leaders to end fighting in eastern Ukraine, saying he expects the truce deal reached Thursday in Belarus to be honored by all parties.
Ban's statement came hours after the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France announced a pullback of forces battling near the Russian border, an exchange of prisoners, and a cease-fire set to begin Sunday. The announcement, after 16 hours of marathon talks, spawned comments from world leaders ranging from cautious optimism to skepticism.
French President Francois Hollande said the deal, if honored, amounts to a "comprehensive political solution," while German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking after the talks concluded, said it offers "a glimmer of hope." She also said "we have no illusions," and that "much work" remains to establish a lasting peace.
The United States, which consulted closely with its allies, did not participate in the Minsk summit. But White House officials called the deal "a potentially significant step toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict."
A White House statement said the "true test" of the accord "will be in its full and unambiguous implementation, including the durable end of hostilities and the restoration of Ukrainian control over its border with Russia."
President Barack Obama said last week that he will await the outcome of the summit before deciding whether to supply Ukraine with defensive weaponry to offset the cross-border flow of Russian military hardware and fighters. Analysts say a decision on such weaponry is not likely before the effectiveness of the truce deal can be fully evaluated.
For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the parties "managed to agree on the main issues," including the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the conflict area.
However, analysts voicing caution about the deal note that it sets no deadline for the withdrawal of Russian forces, weapons and equipment from Ukraine, and does not set a timetable for Ukraine to regain control of its eastern border.
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko stressed Thursday that the Ukrainian side did not agree to grant "autonomy" to the rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine, and made no concessions in its opposition to the country's "federalization" — a demand Moscow has repeatedly made.
Reports of military activity on Russian border
Despite the cease-fire announcement, Ukrainian military officials said more tanks and heavy weapons crossed into Ukrainian territory from Russia overnight in to Thursday.
"Around 50 tanks, 40 multiple rocket launch systems, and a similar number of armored vehicles crossed the Ukrainian-Russian border at Izvarin," said Kyiv military spokesman Andriy Lysenko.
Even as senior U.S. officials welcomed the latest cease-fire, one top U.S. official warned Russia “in the strongest possible terms” against such actions, saying it seriously undercuts the new accord.
State Department officials have said so long as Moscow complies with tenets of the cease-fire, the U.S. will not impose more sanctions against Russia or increase security support for Ukraine. However, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. “will judge the commitment of Russia and the separatists by their actions, not their words.”
Addressing the media, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki echoed that point.
”The truth is, we will see," she said at a Thursday press conference. "We are clear-eyed about the potential here. We have seen the Russians say one thing and do another over the course of the last several months. The first test is whether this agreement lays the groundwork for a more comprehensive settlement ... and we’ll know more on Sunday.”
Kerry added that if the latest accord and the September Minsk deal are fully implemented, the United States will consider rolling back sanctions on Russia.
Another top U.S. official said Russian President Vladmir Putin may have more incentive to honor the agreements now, with his economy faltering due to falling oil prices, sanctions and its political and economic isolation.
But with escalating violence in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, the resolve to end the fighting is far from clear as the cease-fire deadline draws near.
Russia has denied sending troops or weapons across the border to aid in the fighting, which has killed at least 5,400 people and wounded thousands more since separatists launched their uprising 10 months ago.