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Ukraine seeks concrete steps from Russia on truce
by Staff Writers
Kiev (AFP) June 28, 2014

Ukraine conscripts prefer going home to joining rebels
Donetsk, Ukraine (AFP) June 28, 2014 - As his now-former comrades hugged their goodbyes and wished each other a safe journey home, Junior Sergeant Pavel Stupka explained why he refused to renounce his oath of allegiance to Ukraine.

"It would have been a betrayal. I took an oath to the Ukrainian people," Stupka said, pushing his beret back on his head.

"The government in Kiev may have changed but that doesn't mean anything as I took my oath to the people."

For around a year Stupka had been carrying out his obligatory military service at a Ukrainian interior ministry base housing a munitions plant on the outskirts of his hometown Donetsk.

But his service was unexpectedly terminated after heavily-armed pro-Moscow rebel fighters forced the unit to surrender without a fight on Friday evening.

While pro-Kremlin insurgents and government forces have agreed to a shaky ceasefire running until Monday, the rebels are tightening their grip over the remaining Ukrainian-held outposts in the country's restive east.

In a choreographed event staged for the press on Saturday the separatist authorities gave Stupka and other servicemen a choice: either swear allegiance to Russia or leave for good.

In a speech railing against the "fascist junta" in Kiev, a senior rebel leader had tried to cajole the troops to sign up with the separatists.

But when the time came, not one of the roughly 100 young conscripts agreed to switch sides -- opting instead to head back to their families.

"If I defected to Russia I would have difficulty living with myself," Stupka said.

- 'Scared for their families' -

Nearby, rebels toting automatic weapons lounged on olive green ammunition boxes they had seized the night before. An armoured vehicle from the base was being loaded onto the back of a truck.

"The conscripts were clearly scared for their families but they don't understand the situation and don't know what awaits them when they get home," said Vladimir Markovich, deputy parliament speaker of the rebel's self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.

In his farewell speech to the troops the base commander Colonel Oleg Ponomarenko could only offer kind words and wish them a safe trip home.

"In my 28 years of service I have never lost anyone and what is happening today is a decision to protect the lives and health of those under me," the bespectacled officer said.

"Personally I just want to thank you for fulfilling your duty," he added to conscripts' applause.

Several anxious but relieved parents were waiting for the troops after the ceremony.

"Of course I am happy that my son is coming back to me safe and well," said one mother, who gave her name as Yelena. "We were very worried about them."

But serious questions remained over what lay in store next for the soldiers being dismissed.

"My son finished college and then wanted to join the army to help his career but what can he do now?" said Irina, another parent.

"The rebels say they are letting (the soldiers) go officially but what authority do they have?" she asked.

"What if the government decides later to put (my son) on trial for desertion?"

As they posed for a final group photograph and discussed plans for drinking sprees and finding girls, the conscripts said they too were uncertain about the future.

"I feel a hidden joy," one conscript told AFP after pulling on his civilian clothes.

"Happiness because we're being allowed to go but it's hidden because we don't know what will happen to us next."

Ukraine on Saturday sought concrete steps from Russia to back up a tenuous truce it extended with pro-Moscow rebels in the hope of calming a deadly insurgency sparked by the country's new westward course.

President Petro Poroshenko returned triumphant from Brussels on Friday having opened the way to Ukraine's eventual membership in the European Union by signing the final chapters of a landmark free trade and political association accord.

The 1,200-page tome spells out the minute details of the terms under which the splintered ex-Soviet nation will slip from the Kremlin's embrace and tie its future to European economic standards and values on human rights.

But Poroshenko had ordered his top security chiefs to meet him at the airport on landing in order to make a fateful decision about prolonging an expiring truce with rebels who have seized effective control of Ukraine's industrial east.

The 12-week insurgency has killed nearly 450 people and is viewed by both Kiev and its Western allies as Russian President Vladimir Putin's revenge for the February toppling of a leader who had ditched the very EU accord Poroshenko had signed in Brussels.

Poroshenko ultimately decided to extend the shaky ceasefire until Monday evening under the condition that Russia requires the insurgents to return border crossings to Ukrainian forces and set up a monitoring mechanism for a long-term truce.

A spokesman for Ukraine's eastern campaign told AFP that the past day of fighting saw three soldiers killed and six others wounded outside the rebel stronghold city of Slavyansk.

"Everyone knows that a bad peace is better than a good war," Defence Minister Mykhailo Koval told Ukraine's UNIAN news agency.

But "if there is not peaceful solution, we will destroy the rebels big time".

- Pressure on Putin -

Poroshenko is expected to enlist the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande when he places a scheduled call to Putin on the eve of the ceasefire's expiry.

Sunday's teleconference -- the second in four days -- is primarily meant to check on any visible shift in Moscow before the European Union and Washington consider unleashing biting sanctions against Russia's financial and defence sectors the following day.

Putin has publically backed the ceasefire's extensions and promoted direct talks between Poroshenko and top rebel commanders.

But the West wants the Kremlin chief to call on the fighters to lay down their weapons and relinquish control of state buildings they had seized across a dozen eastern cities and towns.

EU leaders agreed at their Brussels summit "to reconvene at any time to adopt further significant restrictive measures if a detailed list of concrete steps are not taken by Russia and the separatists by Monday".

The United States stressed that it was also ready to act at any point.

"We have never outlined a deadline for sanctions," US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in Washington.

"We can make decisions at the time of our choosing on sanctions, and we have done so and will continue to do so."

Russia's economy has already suffered from a massive outflow of capital from investors jittery about the impact of possible restrictions being imposed on the country's banks and export sectors.

Moody's on Friday cut Russia's rating outlook to "negative" due to growing "geopolitical risk".

And Russia's Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev admitted on Saturday that new sanctions could "seriously" impact already-stalled growth.

- Russian retaliation -

But public statements in Russia have thus far suggested that it was busy preparing an economic counter-offensive against Ukraine that would put up prohibitive barriers to its trade.

Putin's spokesman said Russia would have no choice but to impose restrictions to prevent cheap but high-quality EU goods from flooding its market after Kiev and Brussels agree to free trade.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov added on Saturday that Moscow would treat Ukraine and the ex-Soviet states of Georgia of Moldova that signed their own EU deals on Friday "based on one criterium -- how (the agreements) might hurt Russian trade".

Russian and EU ministers have tentatively agreed to meet on July 11 to discuss how Moscow's concerns might be best addressed.


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