The Ukrainian government reluctantly agreed to launch talks on decentralizing power Wednesday as part of a European-backed peace plan, but did not invite its main foes, the pro-Russia insurgents who have declared independence in the east.
That deliberate oversight left it unclear what the negotiations might accomplish.
Ukraine's prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was to chair the first in a series of round tables with national lawmakers, government figures and regional officials as part of a peace plan drafted by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The trans-Atlantic security and rights group also includes Russia and the United States.
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Even as Yatsenyuk launched the talks he was dismissive of them, thanking the OSCE for its efforts but saying Ukraine has its own plan to end the crisis. He gave no details of that plan.
The road map aims to halt fighting between government forces and pro-Russia separatists who have taken over government buildings in the east and de-escalate tensions ahead of Ukraine's May 25 presidential vote. It lets the Ukrainian government decide specifics of the talks.
Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said the talks would involve "regional elites" — expected to include former Ukrainian presidents, officials and lawmakers. But he said the government would not stop its offensive to retake eastern cities now under the control of the separatists who declared independence on Monday.
"The government will act against those who are terrorizing the region with arms in hand in line with the law, by continuing an anti-terrorist operation against them," Turchynov said.
Insurgents dismiss roundtable
Insurgents in the east shrugged off the roundtable as meaningless.
"We haven't received any offers to join a round table and dialogue," Denis Pushilin, an insurgent leader in Donetsk. "If the authorities in Kyiv want a dialogue, they must come here. If we go to Kyiv, they will arrest us."
Even so, European officials applauded the start of the talks. The EU's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, welcomed the launch of the round table on his Twitter account, voicing hope the next meeting would take place in the east.
Sawsan Chebli, a spokeswoman for German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Ukraine's acceptance of the roundtable format was a step in the right direction, whether the pro-Russia separatists were invited or not.
"We are of the opinion that this national dialogue will help to de-escalate the situation," she said.
The OSCE itself would not comment Wednesday on the invitee list.
Russia has strongly backed the OSCE road map. The United States, while saying it's worth a try, views its prospects for success with skepticism.
Ukraine and the West have accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, where insurgents have seized administrative buildings, fought government forces and declared independence for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions after a hastily called vote last weekend that Ukraine and the Western powers have called a sham.
Dozens have died in the scattershot fighting across the east. On Tuesday, the Defence Ministry said six soldiers were killed and nine wounded in a rebel ambush near the city of Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region — the deadliest attack the Ukrainian military has seen since the offensive began last month.
'Undeclared new-generation war'
Defence Ministry spokesman Bohdan Senyk said about 30 gunmen positioned themselves on both sides of the road and used rocket-propelled grenades to knock out the military vehicles in a battle that raged for an hour.
On Wednesday morning, AP journalists saw the charred carcasses of a Ukrainian armoured personnel carrier and a truck at the clash site.
Defence Minister Mykhailo Koval claimed that the insurgents were being aided by Russian servicemen.
"Russia has waged an undeclared new-generation war in Ukraine. The neighbouring country has unleashed a war using units of terrorists and saboteurs," he said.
He added that some of the men who had besieged a Ukrainian military base in the east openly introduced themselves as officers of Russia's 45th Airborne Regiment.
Russia has vehemently denied involvement.
On Wednesday morning, about 15 men armed with automatic weapons arrived at a military base in the city of Donetsk and demanded that the soldiers pledge allegiance to the self-proclaimed rebel Donetsk People's Republic, said Viktoria Kushnir, a spokeswoman of Ukraine's National Guard. The men blocked the gate of the base with a truck for half an hour, but after a lengthy conversation, servicemen persuaded the armed men to go, Kushnir said.
The OSCE plan calls on all sides to refrain from violence, an amnesty for those involved in the unrest, and talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. It envisages a quick launch of high-level round tables across the country, bringing together lawmakers and representatives of the central government and the regions.
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebiynis lamented that the OSCE plan does not specifically oblige Russia to do anything.
In Moscow, Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the lower house of Russian parliament, said Wednesday that the Ukrainian authorities' refusal to speak to their foes and the continuing military operation in the east will undermine the legitimacy of the May 25 presidential vote.
But in an important change, he added that the failure to hold it would be even worse.
"It's hard to imagine that this election could be fully legitimate," Naryshkin said on Rossiya 24 television. "But it's obvious that the failure to hold the election would lead to an even sadder situation, so it's necessary to choose the lesser evil."
Moscow had previously called for postponing Ukraine's presidential vote, saying it must be preceded by a constitutional reform that would turn Ukraine into a federation. It has recently taken a more conciliatory stance, reflecting an apparent desire to ease what has become the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War.
The insurgents in Luhansk have already said they won't allow the presidential ballot to be held and Pushilin, the Donetsk rebel leader, said they will use unspecified "means and methods" to prevent the vote from happening.
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is among those running for president, criticized the authorities for failing to engage their opponents and urged the government to move the round tables from Kyiv to Donetsk, the main city in the rebellious east.
But that wouldn't be enough for many of the insurgents.
"The government in Kyiv does not want to listen to the people of Donetsk," said Denis Patkovski, a member of pro-Russian militia in the eastern city of Slovyansk. "They just come here with their guns."