Russian President Vladimir Putin backed a cease-fire in Ukraine declared by that country's new leader, calling for all sides to halt military activities even as he put more than 65,000 troops on combat alert.
Putin, while saying he supported the weeklong truce that Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko called for on June 20, also said the move shouldn't be an ultimatum to militia groups and won't be "viable or realistic" without "constructive" steps toward negotiations on the disputes in the region.
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His statement, issued late yesterday by the Kremlin, came after Russia ordered troops to take part in a drill in the wake of Poroshenko's move to quell violence in eastern Ukraine. The Russian drill is the biggest since the country annexed the Black Sea Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in March.
The U.S. has accused the government in Moscow of aiding pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's eastern regions and last week imposed sanctions on people linked to the insurgency, adding to penalties announced more than a month ago. American and European officials have warned that more painful sanctions affecting Russia's access to financial markets, technology and military hardware may come as early as this week if Putin refuses to curb tensions.
U.S. analysts greeted Putin's support for the cease-fire with skepticism.
"The Russian side wants to avoid the imposition of further Western sanctions by saying that it supports a cease-fire, but you have to focus on Russian actions, not words," Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, said in an e- mail.
"As usual, Putin is trying to destabilize the situation in Ukraine and weaken the new government, while seeking to avoid sanctions from the West," said Robert Orttung, assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian studies at George Washington University, also in an email.
Russia had originally dismissed Ukraine's declaration of the cease-fire, spurring officials from the European Union and Germany yesterday to call on Putin -- before he issued his latest statement -- to support the peace plan.
Also before Putin's statement, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said his country would impose economic sanctions and travel bans against 11 people -- Vladimir Shamanov, the commander of the Russian Airborne Troops, and 10 Ukrainian militia and rebel government leaders. Feodosia Enterprise, a Crimea-based oil company, also is subject to the sanctions, Harper said.
Putin put troops in Russia's central military region on full combat alert and ordered them to take part in a test of military readiness that is to last through June 28 and will also involve 5,500 pieces of military equipment, Vladimir Anikin, a spokesman for Russia's Defense Ministry, said by phone.
In Kiev, the Foreign Ministry denounced Russia's military activity, saying it "does not help to normalize the situation in Ukraine and to implement peaceful initiatives by the Ukrainian authorities," according to an emailed statement.
The statement was issued before Putin said he backed the cease-fire.
While Ukraine seeks a peaceful solution to the conflict, its military is ready to act "adequately" if the cease-fire is violated, Poroshenko said yesterday on his website prior to Putin's latest statement. The peace plan has "powerful support" from European and U.S. leaders, he said.
Ukraine called on all fighters to lay down arms, halting the offensive against rebels from 10 p.m. on June 20 until 10 a.m. on June 27, according to the president's website.
Pro-Russian militants expressed skepticism the truce will be implemented, as fighting continued in at least seven places. Those skirmishes left nine border troops and one Russian customs official wounded, and an unspecified number of militants killed, Ukrainian authorities said yesterday.
U.S. President Barack Obama spoke by phone on June 20 with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, agreeing in separate conversations that the U.S. and European Union would "impose costs" on Russia if it doesn't work to de-escalate the crisis, the White House said in an e- mailed statement.
The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned seven individuals, including the acting governor of Sevastopol in Crimea and separatist leaders in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Broader measures are being readied against the finance, defense and technology industries, two U.S. officials said.
The U.S. is levying penalties for the first time since April 28, when it sanctioned people and companies linked to Putin's inner circle. Russia risks further measures when EU leaders meet unless it helps end the unrest to support an emerging peace plan, Merkel said on June 20.
European diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said consensus has emerged within the 28-member group that tougher sanctions may be warranted when EU leaders meet June 26-27 in Brussels if Putin fails to abide by earlier pledges.
Poroshenko's 15-point peace plan includes early parliamentary and local elections, job creation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine's east and freeing all seized buildings and abducted people, according to the statement.
Before the cease-fire can be implemented, Ukraine must reassert control over its border with Russia, across which fighters have crossed, according to Poroshenko.
The separatists are willing to consider the plan, according to Andrei Purgin, a deputy premier of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic.
"If we see a true cease-fire, we may stop our actions as well," he said by phone. "But I think there will be no cease- fire. In practice these statements are only political."