Russian push into Ukraine sinks French helo carrier deal

PARIS, FRANCE -- (USA TODAY) Despite claims by Russian president Vladimir Putin that a permanent cease-fire for Ukraine may be near, Western countries are ratcheting up the pressure on the Kremlin in advance of a NATO meeting, with France on Wednesday delaying delivery of the first of two French Mistral navy assault ships to Russia.

The French-built Vladivostok, the first of the two helicopter carriers, was scheduled for delivery to Russia by late October.

A statement from the office of French President Francois Hollande blamed the delay on Moscow's recent actions in Ukraine.

"Russia's recent actions run against the foundations of security in Europe," Hollande's office said in a statement after a meeting between the French leader and top military advisers.

"The president of the (French) republic has concluded that despite the prospect of ceasefire, which has yet to be confirmed and put in place, the conditions under which France could authorize the delivery of the first helicopter carrier are not in place," the statement said, the BBC reports.

The move comes on the eve of a NATO summit in Wales that will be dominated by new moves to bolster Ukraine's security and at a time of tightening sanctions by the European Union and the United States over Russia's military involvement in Ukraine.

Speaking in Estonia on on Wednesday, President Obama blasted what he called Russia's "brazen assault on the sovereign territory of Ukraine."

Obama said Russia's action in Ukraine "challenges that most basic principle that border cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun."

As pressure built this week, Putin appeared to be trying to seize the higher ground by announcing Wednesday that he and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko have agreed on a framework to settle the conflict. He called on Kiev to pull out its troops from the disputed areas and for rebels to stop their military operations, particularly in Donetsk and Luhansk.

The Kremlin leader said he believes that the Contact Group on Ukraine -- currently meeting in Minsk, the Belarus capital -- would reach final agreements on the settlement plan at their next meeting on Friday, according to the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS.

As part of a seven-point plan, Putin said militants must end their military operations in the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine and that Ukrainian armed forces should pull back far enough to rule out the shelling of cities and villages. He also said military aircraft should not be used against civilians and population areas in the conflict zone, Interfax Russia reports.

He said a final agreement should also include a full and impartial international monitoring of a cease-fire.

In addition, the Russian leader said a deal should set up humanitarian corridors to allow for the movement of refugees and the delivery of supplies to the cities and towns of Donbass.

Putin's comments followed different accounts by Kiev and Moscow on a telephone call between the two heads of state, with Poroshenko saying a permanent cease-fire deal had been reached and Russia saying only the outlines of an agreement had been discussed.

The different response to the cease-fire talk reflected the smoke-and-mirrors nature of the conflict, with Russia maintaining it cannot agree to a cease-fire because it is not directly involved in the fighting between Ukrainian troops and separatist rebels.

Initially, Poroshenko said flatly on Twitter that , "As a result of my telephone conversation with Russian President we reached an agreement on a permanent cease-fire on Donbass.'"

Donbass refers to the industrialized region of eastern Ukraine that has been the main battlefield in the months-long fight between Ukrainian troops and the Pro-Russian rebels that has left more than 2,600 people dead. It includes the main cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been rebel strongholds.

A subsequent statement released by Poroshenko's office said "mutual understanding was reached regarding the steps that will contribute to the establishment of peace."

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov later confirmed that the two leaders did discuss steps on the possible basis for a cease-fire but said "Russia cannot physically agree on a cease-fire because it isn't a party in the conflict."

Significantly, Vladimir Antyfeyev, a senior leader of the Russia-backed rebels whom Ukrainian forces have been fighting since April, told the Associated Press he could not say whether the separatists would adhere to a cease-fire because he was not commanding the forces. "But I definitely welcome this," he said. Rebel fighters ignored a previous truce called for in June.

Ukraine and the West say that Russia has been sending troops and weapons to support pro-Russian insurgents fighting Kiev's forces in eastern Ukraine since mid-April. Moscow has consistently denied this charge.

President Obama, who was in Estonia Wednesday holding security talks with the leaders of the three Baltic countries that sit on Russia's western frontier, said it was too early to tell what the latest cease-fire announcement meant. He noted previous unsuccessful attempts and questioned whether pro-Russian separatists would abide by any cease-fire.

In his formal remarks later, Obama was blunt in pushing aside Russian claims that it did not have any military presence in Ukraine.

The Russian forces that have moved into Ukraine, he said, "are not on a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission, they are Russian combat forces with Russian weapons in Russian tanks."

"Just as we never accepted the occupation and illegal annexation of the Baltic nations (by the Soviet Union), we will never accept Russia's illegal annexation of the Crimea or any part of Ukraine," he said

NATO, at its meeting this week in NATO, should takes steps to increase support for Ukraine, including helping "modernize and strengthen its security forces," the president added.

"This is a moment of testing," Obama said. "The actions of the separatists in Ukraine and Russia are dark tactics of Europe's past and ought to be consigned to a distant history."


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