A member of Ukrainian police special task force "Kiev-1" carries a weapon that was hidden by pro-Russian separatists in the basement of an unfinished house in Slaviansk September 2, 2014. Russian troops are strengthening their positions in eastern Ukraine and using aid shipments to smuggle in arms and other supplies to separatist forces, Kiev's military said on Tuesday. Stanislav Belousov/Reuters
The office of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Wednesday that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin are in agreement on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, but the statement was ambiguous and a top rebel figure said no ceasefire was possible without Ukraine withdrawing its forces.
The brief statement said "mutual understanding was reached regarding the steps that will contribute to the establishment of peace" but gave no details.
There have been previous statements of agreements on steps for peace, but the conflict has only intensified. Wednesday's statement came as U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Estonia in a show of solidarity with NATO allies who fear they could be the next target of Russia's aggression.
Poroshenko's office first said that there "agreement on a permanent cease-fire," but later revised the statement to say "agreement on a cease-fire regime." The changes appeared in Ukrainian, Russian and English-language versions issued by the office.
That appeared to indicate they were in agreement on conditions necessary for a cease-fire, not that one would imminently be implemented.
Vladislav Brrig, a rebel official, told The Associated Press, "As long as Ukrainian forces are on the territory of the Donetsk People's Republic there can be no ceasefire."
The rebels ignored a 10-day unilateral cease-fire that Poroshenko had called in June.
Obama said it was too early to tell what the announcement meant. He noted previous unsuccessful attempts and questioned whether pro-Russian separatists would abide by any ceasefire.
"We haven't seen a lot of follow-up on so-called announced ceasefires," Obama said. "Having said that, if in fact Russia is prepared to stop financing, arming, training, in many cases joining with Russian troops, activities in Ukraine and is serious about a political settlement, that is something we all hope for."
Germany also said it does not have confirmation of a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine so a timeline on further sanctions against Russia agreed by European leaders last weekend is still valid, a government spokesman said on Wednesday.
"We have no real confirmation of what was really or possibly agreed there and what that would affect and how that would actually be implemented. So we're sticking to the timeframe the European Council agreed on Saturday," said Steffen Seibert.
Obama reassures Baltics
The president arrived in Tallinn, Estonia's port capital, early Wednesday after an overnight flight from Washington.
Obama proclaimed an unwavering and permanent U.S. commitment to the security of its NATO allies, as he mounted a show of solidarity Wednesday with European nations anxious about Russia's aggression in Ukraine.
Obama said the U.S. would send more Air Force units and aircraft to the Baltics. Under the NATO charter, an attack on one member is considered an attack on the entire alliance.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Obama called Estonia's Amari Air Base an ideal location to base those additional forces. He ticked through a list of U.S. military resources already at work in the region, and said the U.S. has a duty under the NATO charter to the alliance's collective defence.
"It is unbreakable, it is unwavering, it is eternal. And Estonia will never stand alone," Obama said.
Russia denies involvement
Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of sending its troops and weapons to support pro-Russian insurgents who have been fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine since mid-April. Moscow has vehemently denied this charge.
That denial leaves unclear how effective the truce announced Wednesday would prove to be. After a meeting with Poroshenko last week, Putin had said a ceasefire was not discussed because Russia was not a party to the conflict.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted by Russian news agencies on Wednesday as saying the leaders had "largely agreed on steps that would be conducive to a ceasefire," but repeated that Russia is not involved in the fighting.
Rebel leaders said earlier this week that they would respect Ukraine's sovereignty in exchange for autonomy. The rebels previously have called for full independence for their regions or possible absorption into Russia. Poroshenko has spoken in favour of devolving some of the central government's power to regions, but that is far short of autonomy for the rebel regions.
Over the weekend, the European Union leaders agreed to prepare a new round of sanctions that could be enacted in a week, after NATO accused Russia of sending tanks and troops into southeastern Ukraine. A NATO summit in Wales on Thursday is also expected to approve measures designed to counter Russia's aggressive actions in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, loud artillery explosions rocked the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.
A Reuters correspondent in Donetsk said the blasts could be heard in the northwest of the city, home to about 1 million people before the conflict began, and dark grey smoke was billowing from an area near the city airport.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine has killed nearly 2,600 people and forced over 340,000 to flee their homes, according to the UN.
Russia to conduct major war games
Also on Wednesday, Russia's defence ministry said the forces responsible for the country's strategic nuclear arsenal will conduct major exercises this month involving more than 4,000 soldiers.
RIA news agency quoted the ministry as saying the exercises would take place in Altai in south-central Russia and would also include around 400 technical units and extensive use of air power.
The agency quoted Dmitry Andreyev, a major in the strategic rocket forces, as saying troops would practice countering irregular units and high-precision weapons, and "conducting combat missions in conditions of active radio-electronic jamming and intensive enemy actions in areas of troop deployment."
He said enemy forces would be represented in the exercises by spetsnaz (special forces) units.
Supersonic MiG-31 fighter-interceptors and Su-24MR reconnaissance aircraft would take part, Andreyev said, saying the scale of air power involved was unprecedented for exercises of this kind.
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