German chancellor wants Putin to intervene and release seven hostages, including four German soldiers.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia spoke with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on Thursday, her office in Berlin said, reportedly telling the German leader that Ukraine must remove its military from the south-eastern region of the country in order resolve the showdown there with pro-Russian militants who have seized several official buildings.
“Putin emphasised that it was imperative today to withdraw all military units from the south-eastern regions, stop the violence and immediately launch a broad national dialogue as part of the constitutional reform process involving all regions and political forces,” the Russian news agency Interfax reported.
Russia has repeatedly blamed Ukraine for escalating the situation and has accused the government in Kiev of deploying 11,000 soldiers in the region. The acting Ukrainian president, Oleksandr Turchinov, said the security services had lost control of the region to armed separatists who have seized government buildings in about a dozen towns.
Ukraine has said that it sent soldiers to the east in response to manoeuvres by some 40,000 Russian troops deployed just over the border on what the Kremlin has termed training exercises. Kiev has said that any move by Russian troops over the border would be treated as an invasion.
Christiane Wirtz, a spokeswoman for the German chancellor, said Merkel had urged Putin to intervene in the case of seven military monitors, including four German soldiers, affiliated with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who are being held hostage by a separatist mayor in the pro-Russian stronghold of Slovyansk.
“The chancellor reminded President Putin of Russia’s responsibility as a member of the OSCE and called on the president to use his influence,” Wirtz said. The conversation was initiated by Merkel, the Kremlin said. Both leaders reportedly agreed that the 57-nation OSCE should serve as mediator in the impasse over Ukraine. In a separate report from Interfax, the pro-Russian movement in Slovyansk said it had freed two of three captured members of the Ukrainian security services in exchange for the release of an unspecified number of its own activists. The report could not be immediately confirmed by independent sources.
The three men were shown earlier this week beaten and bloodied. They were filmed wearing nothing more than their shirts and underwear, with blood oozing from behind the duct tape covering their eyes. The separatists controlling City Hall in Slovyansk are holding an estimated 40 prisoners, including the elected mayor.
The status of the elected mayor, Neli Shtepa, has been in dispute, with the militants saying that she is under their protection but free, and the government in Kiev saying she is in custody. On Wednesday, the City Council met behind closed doors to accept Shtepa’s resignation as mayor, but said that she would remain in the City Hall building.
Shtepa, in a brief interview last month organised by the separatists, said the gunmen had detained her in the building, that she was sleeping on a mattress on the floor of an office, and that she was not free to leave. Russia and the separatists have denied that they are working together. Putin has also said that there are no Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, and has denied that Moscow is driving the rebellion there. He made similar claims during the annexation of Crimea, however, and then later acknowledged the existence of a Russian operation.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued another statement Thursday condemning Ukraine for seeking to hold a national vote on May 25, including presidential elections and a referendum on decentralisation, while military operations continue in the east. Some analysts believe that Russia is deliberately destabilising the eastern region via the separatists in order to undermine the attempt to elect a legitimate government in Ukraine.
Details of the conversation between Putin and Merkel emerged shortly after Russian news agencies reported the start of what were described as training manoeuvres by a newly formed Russian attack helicopter unit near the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. The deployment could crank up tensions with NATO, which has stationed extra fighter jets to reassure the jittery former Soviet republics that are worried the Kremlin might be eyeing more countries than just Ukraine.
Thursday was May Day, and in Russia tens of thousands gathered Red Square to mark the celebration of the working man. News announcers crowed that it was the first time the celebration has been held there since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, after which the Kremlin studiously kept any activity with political overtones out of the storied square. The day is still a main event for labour unions and the Communist Party, which was a strident opposition party for many years before lining up behind Putin.
The return to the square fit neatly with Putin’s concerted attempts to burnish the Soviet past, and the speakers and many marchers lauded the annexation of Crimea in March. The bigger annual celebration with a thundering military parade and a speech by Putin has been moved to May 9, Victory Day, which this year marks the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The interim authorities in Kiev were also reported Thursday to have ordered the expulsion of a naval attaché at Moscow’s embassy after accusing the official of “activities incompatible with diplomatic status,” a term that normally denotes espionage, according to the Interfax-Ukraine news agency. There was no immediate response from Russia to the Ukrainian move.
Interfax-Ukraine quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying in a statement that “the military-naval attaché of the embassy of the Russian Federation in Ukraine is declared persona non grata in connection with his actions, which are not in accordance with his diplomatic status.” The diplomat was not identified by name. The agency said he had been detained Wednesday while involved in “intelligence activities.”
The statement did not offer any detail about those activities or say whether they were linked to the occupation of government facilities in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine, where the authorities have acknowledged losing control. “Inactivity, helplessness and even criminal betrayal” plague the security forces there, Turchinov told a meeting of regional governors in Kiev on Wednesday. “It is hard to accept but it’s the truth. The majority of law enforcers in the east are incapable of performing their duties.”
The expulsion of the Russian diplomat evoked memories of the Cold War, as the West shows growing alarm at the advance of pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine and seeks to reassure allies further afield. In Moscow, the state-run news agency RIA Novosti quoted Col. Oleg Kochetkov, a spokesman for Russia’s Western Military District, as saying that dozens of attack helicopters - identified as the Mi-28N Night Hunter and the Ka-52 Alligator - supported by military transport helicopters “have begun regular training flights in the skies over northwestern Russia.”
The agency said the helicopters were from the 15th Army Aviation Brigade, formed in December at the Ostrov air base. The brigade was “fully equipped with new, recently built helicopters,” it said. The report by RIA Novosti referred to NATO “ramping up its military presence in the region,” and it noted that “media in the former Soviet Baltic states, as well as Germany, Poland and the United Kingdom, have expressed security concerns about Russia’s decision to station the 15th brigade near NATO’s borders.”