The Kremlin issued a series of contradictory messages on Monday about the situation in Eastern Ukraine. Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, urged negotiations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko towards a ceasefire. However, Putin continues to condone the work of pro-Russian separatists and their stronghold over the Donbass region of Ukraine.
Lavrov told Moscow students on Monday that Ukraine's forces "must leave positions from which they can harm the civilian population. I very much count on today's negotiations being devoted above all to the task of agreeing an immediate ceasefire, without conditions," referring to the ongoing dialogue in Minsk.
President Putin offered this statement when a reporter asked him about the increasingly violent situation in Donbass:
The root of the tragedy currently unfolding, as I see it, is that the current government in Kiev does not want to engage in a substantive political dialogue with the country’s eastern regions. And I mean here a real political dialogue on the matters of substance.
What objectives are the southeast regions’ militia pursuing in their current military operations and why have they stepped up their activity? They are responding to the fact that the Ukrainian regular armed forces have surrounded towns and are firing directly at residential districts. What the militia are trying to do is drive back these armed forces and their artillery so as to prevent them from shooting at residential areas. Unfortunately however, many countries, including in Europe, prefer to ignore this fact.
I think it is a very important process that is starting now – the process of direct negotiations. We worked on this long and hard and reached an agreement on the matter with President Poroshenko in Minsk. Now these contacts will resume.
Poroshenko directly countered Putin's statement when speaking in Kiev, "Direct, unconcealed aggression has been launched against Ukraine from a neighboring country. It radically changes the situation in the conflict area." Poroshenko has also called for an "extended meeting" with the general staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine as rebel forces increasingly battle with the Ukrainian military over the Luhansk airport and Mariupol port, two important Eastern Ukrainian strongholds. The leader of the staff offered this statement through Poroshenko's press office, "The situation is difficult but Ukrainian morale is stronger than that of the occupants. We are protecting our land."
While the ongoing dialogue is certainly important, Putin may not have much time to think on Russia's actions (and inactions) in Eastern Ukraine. The European Union has already threatened an additional round of sanctions, though it is unclear what they may be, or when they would begin. The effectiveness of sanctions has long been debated, as Europe is unable to bite Russia where it truly hurts — natural gas — without also detrimentally affecting their own citizens. Much of Europe relies heavily on Russia for gas, and no one wants to endanger those supplies with winter on the horizon.
Germany's leader, Angela Merkel, addressed her parliament in regards to the increased sanctions, saying, "It is becoming ever clearer that, from the very start, this was not a conflict within Ukraine, but a conflict between Russia and Ukraine. I have to say there is also an impact when you are allowed to move borders in Europe and attack other countries with your troops. Accepting Russia’s behavior is not an option. And therefore it was necessary to prepare further sanctions."
Though Russia's involvement in Eastern Ukraine remains a point of international debate, Putin has still found time to relax this past weekend. He attended the Judo World Championship: