As part of a plan to end almost two-months of fighting in eastern Ukraine by the end of the week, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered "humanitarian corridors" to be created to allow civilians to escape the violence.
Poroshenko wants to win Russia's approval of a peace plan for the east, where pro-Russian separatists have seized control of several cities, claiming independence from Ukraine. More than 200 people have been killed in the rebellion and military response, which Kyiv calls an "anti-terrorist" operation and Moscow calls a "punitive operation."
Russia welcomed the decision to aid civilian evacuations, but also expressed concerns about Kyiv stepping up its attacks against the separatists once civilians were out of the way.
"Military operations are continuing and even intensifying in some cases," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, following a meeting in Russia's second city of St. Petersburg with his Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski and German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Lavrov emphasized that Kyiv needed to stop armed action against the pro-Russian separatists and instead engage them in dialogue.
The separatists rejected the idea of civilian corridors. "People are leaving our territory unhampered, therefore, it is unclear what corridor he is talking about," a spokesman for the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, Vladimir Inogorodskikh, told Russia's Interfax news agency.
Change of tone
Speaking after the St. Petersburg talks, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Russia's tone had notably changed. He urged Russia to use its influence on the separatist groups to end the standoff.
"There is no interest to risk a new partition of Europe," Steinmeier said, reiterating earlier comments that he saw "a light at the end of the tunnel."
"I have seen that there is a readiness from all sides to act to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine," he told journalists, adding that he hoped Russia would use its influence with the separatists.
se/kms (Reuters, dpa, AFP)