Senior Russian, Ukrainian, German and French officials will meet in Berlin on Friday to discuss eastern Ukraine and the next steps needed toward implementing a peace accord struck three weeks ago in Minsk, Germany's foreign minister said.
“Of course we cannot be satisfied with the speed of the implementation of the Minsk accord, but we have seen there has been a clear reduction of violence and a reduction of infringements of the cease-fire,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Thursday.
“We need to ensure the cease-fire and weapons withdrawal can be secured enough to provide solid ground for the next steps ahead, such as the introduction of a political process,” he added at a joint press conference with his Polish counterpart.
Kyiv accused rebels on Thursday of repeated violations of the cease-fire deal, which began February 15, and said they were building up forces in the southern Donetsk province, near the Ukrainian-held port city of Mariupol.
Political directors of the countries' foreign ministries and deputy foreign ministers will attend the talks on Friday.
Stanislaw Koziej, head of Poland's National Security Council, said in Warsaw Thursday that it was in the interests of Europe, Poland and Ukraine to strengthen the Ukrainian armed forces as this would help to de-escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“We completely share the view that the stronger the Ukrainian army, the bigger the chances of slowing down the escalation of the conflict,” Koziej said after a meeting with Olexander Turchinov, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council.
“Hence it is in the interests of Europe, Poland and Ukraine to strengthen and additionally arm the Ukrainian army,” said Koziej, who is also an adviser to Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.
Also Thursday, in Moscow Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov refuted U.S. claims that there are thousands of Russian troops supporting pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine and massed along the joint border ready to cross.
U.S. Army Europe Commander Ben Hodges said Tuesday at a speech in Berlin there were around 12,000 Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine and another 50,000 troops positioned on the Russian side of the border in case the separatists suffer a severe setback and the Ukrainian army gains the upper hand.
The Russian forces are made up of military advisers, weapons operators and combat troops, Hodges said in the speech, adding that a further 29,000 soldiers were stationed in the Crimea peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine last year.
Antonov questioned the allegations. “Why only 12 thousand? Why are they so modest? Why didn't they say 20,000? Why didn't say 25? Nobody is allowed to say anything in reply to them anyway.”
“When it comes to us, our forces are involved in usual, routine military activities. There is no any unusual activity, there is no unusual congregation anywhere - and it was not seen by international inspectors, too,” he said, referring to flights over Russia carried out as part of the Open Skies Treaty.
Russia has repeatedly denied claims that it is directing the rebel assault in eastern Ukraine with its own troops and weapons, despite what the Kyiv government and Western countries say is incontrovertible evidence.
At the conference, Antonov also said Russia is also acutely aware of the threat to international safety posed by the Islamic State group, and the Islamist group actions would feature prominently at a conference of defense ministers and officials from all over the world hosted in Moscow next month.
He said they can see the influence of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, “We see how they start to put pressure on southern borders of our allies,” Antonov said, pointing out former Soviet republic Tajikistan's proximity to Afghanistan.
The Defense Ministry also said Thursday that large-scale military exercises, including more than 2,000 anti-aircraft troops and 500 items of weaponry, had started in southern Russia and in disputed territories on Russia's borders.
The exercises will last until April 10, Interfax news agency reported.
The ministry said the exercises were taking place in Russia's Southern and North Caucasus Federal Districts, as well as on Russian military bases in Armenia, the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Ukraine's Crimea region, which Moscow annexed last year.
They are likely to be viewed in the West as a show of force as relations between Russia and the West are at their most strained since the Cold War because of the Ukraine crisis.
Polish comments tempered
Meanwhile, Poland Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz chastised her coalition partner for describing Ukraine's economy as on the brink of disintegration and suggesting Poland could face a flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees across its frontiers.
“(We need) fewer critics and more real help on this particular issue, which will make it easier for Ukrainians,” Kopacz was quoted as saying by state news agency PAP late Wednesday when asked about her deputy's remarks.
In an interview with Reuters published on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Janusz Piechocinski said progress toward building a Western-style democracy in Ukraine had been disappointing since a pro-Russian president was toppled by demonstrations in February last year.
Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna, a senior figure in Kopacz's Civic Platform party, said Piechocinski should think twice before commenting on foreign policy.
“Because one can help here, or cause a lot, a lot of damage,” Schetyna told broadcaster TVN24.
The comments by Piechocinski, leader of the junior coalition partner, the PSL, signaled frictions in the alliance.
European Union member Poland ranks as one of Ukraine's most outspoken supporters in a war with pro-Russian rebels in eastern provinces. It is helping Kyiv fight graft and improve regional governance, and plans to help with military training.