Ukraine launched talks Wednesday on national unity without the participation of pro-Russian separatists who are seeking autonomy from Kyiv in the country's east and southeast.
In opening remarks, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said his government is ready for dialogue. He also insisted, though, that Kyiv will not talk to the pro-Russian gunmen who have seized buildings and killed government troops near the Russian border.
The talks, which opened 11 days ahead of Ukrainian presidential elections, are part of a "road map" backed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Analysts, however, say the deliberate omission of separatists from the discussions raises doubts about whether the meetings will ease ethnic tensions threatening to rip the country apart.
Separatists who declared "sovereignty" in two eastern regions this week dismissed the Kyiv talks. Rebel leader Denis Pushilin told The Associated Press that any such dialogue must take place in the east. "If we go to Kyiv, they will arrest us," he said.
National lawmakers and regional officials, religious leaders and civic activists are attending the talks, part of a "road map" laid out by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The OSCE plan calls on both the Ukrainian government and the separatists to refrain from violence. It also seeks immediate amnesty for those involved in the fighting and talks on decentralizing the country's political system and on the status of the Russian language.
But the separatist rebels are not represented, raising doubts about the negotiations’ effectiveness.
“We haven’t received any offers to join a round table,” Denis Pushilin, an insurgent leader in Donetsk, told the Associated Press. “If the authorities in Kyiv want a dialogue, they must come here. If we go to Kyiv, they will arrest us.”
On Tuesday, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine killed seven government soldiers in an ambush of a military armored column near the city of Kramatorsk.
On Wednesday, Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-styled "people's mayor" of Slovyansk, the rebel stronghold in eastern Ukraine, as saying eight government soldiers had been killed and seven wounded overnight in a battle with rebels outside Slovyansk.
There was no immediate response to the claim from Kyiv.
'Close to civil war'
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Bloomberg Television on Wednesday that Ukraine “is as close to civil war as you can get” and that a solution must be found to satisfy all of its regions.
Lavrov said it is "ridiculous" to hold Russia accountable for Ukraine's May 25 presidential election, adding that the vote cannot be legitimate if it is impeded by fighting. He also insisted Russia has “no intention” of sending its troops anywhere.
Russian news agencies Wednesday quoted officials of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as saying the election will not be held in the two breakaway regions.
On Monday, a day after referendums on self-rule, separatist leaders declared the two Russian-speaking regions to be independent states. Leaders in Donetsk asked Moscow to consider formally absorbing the region into the Russian Federation. The Kremlin has not yet responded.
On Wednesday, Interfax quoted Vladimir Karasev, a leader of the Donetsk People's Republic, as saying the two "republics" were forming an "army of the southeast."
Russian troops still at border
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department on Tuesday released satellite pictures showing Russian forces near the Ukrainian border, despite assurances from Moscow last week that it had withdrawn its huge military force.
Commercial satellite photos, dated May 9, also appear on NATO's Twitter account. The pictures show helicopters parked near the Russian border town of Belgorad. A second photo, taken Sunday across the border from the embattled Ukraine city of Mariupol, showed what U.S. officials described as Russian armored vehicles.
After declaring independence, separatist leaders in Donetsk asked Moscow to consider formally "absorbing" the region into the Russian Federation. The Kremlin has not yet responded.
Moscow said Monday that it respects the outcome of the votes. But Tuesday, Russia's Foreign Ministry said it expects the pro-Russian "self-defense forces" in eastern Ukraine to "react appropriately" if Kyiv agrees to halt "punitive actions" in the east and withdraw its military forces.
Mixed messages from Germany
Europe is partly to blame for the crisis in Ukraine, although this is no excuse for Russian behavior toward the former Soviet republic, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's deputy said Wednesday.
The tone struck by Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, head of the Social Democrats (SPD), contrasts with that of conservative Merkel, who blames Russia for exacerbating the crisis, souring ties between Russia and the West.
"Certainly, the European Union has also made mistakes, although this does not justify Russia's behavior," Gabriel told the German daily Rheinische Post
"It was certainly not smart to create the impression in Ukraine that it had to decide between Russia and the EU," said Gabriel, who also serves as economy minister. "But again: That was not and is not a justification to plunge a country into chaos," he added.
On Monday, Merkel rejected criticism from her SPD predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, a personal friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Schroeder had said Europe's approach toward Ukraine and Russia was one reason for the crisis.
Gabriel also said an armed conflict must be avoided under any circumstances.
Putin stresses self-reliance
Putin said on Wednesday that Russia's defense industry should stop relying on foreign components and should be self-sufficient following Western sanctions imposed on Moscow over the crisis in Ukraine.
“We need to do our utmost for anything used in our defense sector to be produced on our territory, so that we would not be dependent on anyone...,” he told a meeting of defense officials at his Black Sea residence.
Washington has threatened to target some high-tech exports to Russia as part of sanctions, in addition to visa bans and asset freezes already in place.
In an apparent retaliatory move, Russia on Tuesday rejected a U.S. request to prolong the use of the International Space Station, a 15-nation project, beyond 2020.
Washington wants to keep the space station in use until at least 2024.
Calling the U.S. and “unrealiable partner,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Moscow would also bar Washington from using Russian-made rocket engines to launch military satellites.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters