MOSCOW - French President Francois Hollande said after an impromptu visit to Russia for crisis talks with Vladimir Putin on Saturday that a ceasefire could take hold in eastern Ukraine in the next few days.
The Russian president, who met Hollande during his stopover at a Moscow airport after a trip to Kazakhstan, said he also hoped agreement would be reached soon to shore up a shaky truce reached for east Ukraine on Sept. 5.
Hollande's unexpected visit underlined the West's concern about the conflict between government forces and pro-Russian separatists, and about Putin's increasingly hostile anti-Western rhetoric as he defies calls to do more to end the crisis.
Hollande, the first head of a leading Western power to meet Putin in Russia since Moscow annexed the Crimea peninsula in March, urged all parties to respect the Sept. 5 truce deal.
"The ceasefire that will be proclaimed tomorrow or the day after must be completely respected," Hollande said in comments broadcast on French television after the talks at Vnukovo airport, southwest of Moscow, without giving details.
"France's role is to search for solutions and prevent problems from degenerating," he added. "I wanted today, alongside President Putin, to send a message of de-escalation. Today that message is possible."
Putin, who looked nervous before he greeted Hollande with a handshake, said they had held detailed discussions on ending the violence in which more than 4,300 people have been killed in mainly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine since April.
"I very much hope that in the nearest future a final decision on ceasing fire will be taken," Putin told reporters.
Day of silence
In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, President Petro Poroshenko said a preliminary agreement had been reached to hold new talks on Tuesday on implementing the steps agreed under the Sept 5 ceasefire deal reached in the Belarussian capital, Minsk.
It was not clear whether Hollande and Putin were referring to these new talks or to a separate, new ceasefire plan.
Poroshenko said the latest round of talks on implementing the 12-point peace plan known as the Minsk protocol would focus on agreeing a schedule for all measures to be taken.
The proposed date of Dec. 9 coincides with a promised "Day of Silence," when both sides say they will observe a truce.
Putin said Russia would respect Ukraine's territorial integrity. But that may not reassure Kyiv and its Western allies, including the United States, who view the annexation of Crimea as an illegal seizure of Ukrainian territory.
Hollande made clear he was alarmed by a speech by Putin on Thursday in which the Kremlin chief accused Russia's enemies of trying to bring a new Iron Curtain down around Russia.
NATO and Western powers accuse Moscow of sending troops and weapons to back the rebels. Moscow denies this and says it is not party to the conflict.
Hollande last month suspended indefinitely the delivery of the first of two Mistral helicopter carriers ordered by Russia because of the conflict in Ukraine. Putin said they did not discuss the deal but he hoped Paris would stick to the contract.