Helicopter is shot down after Russia endorsed extending the cease-fire.
DONETSK, Ukraine – A cease-fire agreement between combatants in eastern Ukraine appeared shaky Tuesday as separatist rebels shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter, according to a spokesman for the Ukrainian army. All nine aboard are feared dead, he said.
The Mi-8 helicopter was carrying equipment and specialists to monitor the fragile cease-fire near the rebel-held city of Slovyansk, a center of the conflict, when it was struck by a missile fired from a man-portable air defense system, the spokesman, Vladislav Seleznyov, said in a statement posted online. The rebels did not confirm the attack.
The missile strike came as President Vladimir Putin of Russia said the temporary cease-fire, agreed to a day earlier by Russia, Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels, should be extended and signaled his interest in negotiations to end the fighting.
Hours earlier, Putin sent a request to the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament asking that it rescind a March 1 resolution authorizing the use of the country’s armed forces in Ukraine, his spokesman said.
Those developments followed a warning by the United States and some European leaders that Russia faced a third, stiffer round of economic sanctions, specifically targeting sectors like banking and high technology, if it did not do more to end the crisis. European leaders are due to discuss the sanctions during a summit in Brussels on Friday.
Speaking in Vienna, where he had gone to shore up support for a new route for Russian gas exports in the face of European opposition, Putin said the cease-fire, which was supposed to last through Friday, was evidently insufficient.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said that the request was “aimed at normalizing the situation in the eastern regions of Ukraine” in response to the beginning of “trilateral negotiations on this matter.”
The move was largely symbolic — Putin can get whatever he needs from the rubber-stamp parliament at any time. But it had been one step requested by the United States and other Western powers to indicate that Moscow was serious in seeking a negotiated solution to the monthslong conflict in Ukraine.
Russia had been pressuring Ukraine to talk directly to the rebels, and Putin’s public move to take the Russian armed forces out of the equation was evidently a means to endorse the first results from the talks.
Putin’s decision to rescind the resolution on the use of force will put added pressure on President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine to negotiate directly with the separatists.