Ukraine's parliament has adopted legislation granting greater autonomy to the separatist regions in the east of the country, as well as amnesty for most of those involved in recent fighting with government forces.
The new laws, which were proposed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, are aimed at ending a five-month separatist rebellion, which to date has claimed an estimated 3,000 lives and paralyzed Ukraine politically and economically.
Under the legislation, rebel-held parts of Ukraine's eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions will be granted a "special status," giving them broader autonomy for a temporary three-year period. Additionally, the new laws envision aid to restore the regions’ damaged infrastructure and the provision of social and economic assistance to hard-hit areas.
A separate bill grants amnesty to "participants of events in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions," an apparent reference to separatist fighters and to Ukrainian government troops and volunteer battalions.
Excluded from the amnesty would be those who committed "grave crimes" and those who were involved in the downing in July of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.
Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, said the laws would guarantee the "sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence" of Ukraine, while paving the way towards a decentralization of government, which had been among rebel demands.
Separatist leaders played down the significance of the move. Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that the legislation still needs to be signed by President Poroshenko and published before it becomes law. "Then we will translate it into Russian, study it and give our opinion," he said.
Zakharchenko's first deputy, Andrei Purgin, told RIA Novosti the legislation could serve “only as a reference point for future dialogue, not as a legislative act," adding that laws governing the Donetsk People's Republic are made by its own parliament, not the one in Kyiv.
Also Tuesday, Ukraine's parliament ratified a landmark political and trade agreement with the European Union, whose rejection last November by the previous Kyiv government under president Viktor Yanukovych led to massive street protests that culminated in his ouster in February.
Ratification was synchronized with that of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, with both legislatures, via live video link, voting overwhelmingly in support.
The agreement includes free-trade privileges, and supports reforms in core sectors in Ukraine, putting the country on a path to economic recovery and opening the door for its eventual membership in the European Union.
Ukraine’s pro-Europe orientation and its deal with the EU have been strongly opposed by Russia, which after the fall of Moscow-backed Yanukovych moved to annex Ukraine’s Crimea and is widely believed to have fomented and actively supported the bloody separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine. Moscow denies the charge.
Referring to the deaths of the more than one hundred demonstrators killed in anti-Yanukovych protests as well as to the soldiers who perished fighting the separatist rebels, Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, said that “since World War II, no nation has paid so high a price to become European.”
In a concession to Russia, the EU and Ukraine agreed last Friday to delay implementation of the free-trade part of the deal until the end of next year.
Commenting on Russia’s opposition to the deal, experts say Moscow’s concerns were primarily political in nature.
“Ukraine is becoming a European country, which is a danger for the Kremlin, not for Russia as a country, but for the Kremlin,” said Olexiy Haran, a political science professor at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine’s capital.
Russia looks to boost troops in Crimea
Russia's defense minister called Tuesday for bolstering the country's military presence on the Crimean peninsula, while another top official accused the West of pushing the world toward a new cold war.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said deploying "proper and self-sufficient forces" in the direction of Crimea is a top priority. He said such a step was needed because the situation in Ukraine has "escalated sharply" and also because of an increased foreign military presence "in the immediate vicinity" of Russia's borders.
The U.S. military is currently leading peacekeeping exercises in western Ukraine involving 15 nations. Exercise Rapid Trident, which runs through September 26, is being conducted near Yavoriv at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center, approximately 60 kilometers from the city of Lviv in western Ukraine.
According to the Pentagon, about 1,300 personnel are taking part in the drill, including 200 U.S. soldiers.
Meanwhile, the speaker of the lower house of Russia's parliament - the State Duma - accused the United States and its allies of pursuing a policy that is "pushing the world to the brink of a new cold war." Sergei Naryshkin cited reports that some NATO countries have promised Ukraine weapons and military hardware.
NATO officials have said the alliance will not send weapons to Ukraine, but that individual countries may choose to do so.
The Russian rouble fell to new lows on Tuesday trading at 38.93 against the dollar. It briefly fell below 38 roubles per dollar for the first time ever Monday.
The White House says the development is a direct result of U.S. and European sanctions imposed against Russia over its role in the conflict in Ukraine.
"It is evidence that Russia is paying a price,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
He added that the rouble's decline is “consistent with the impact [of sanctions] that we've seen thus far.”
Al Pessin contributed to this report from Kyiv. Some material came from Reuters.