Western pressure mounts on Russia to save Ukraine truce

Russia came under mounting pressure from the West on Saturday to save Ukraine’s crumbling truce with pro-Kremlin insurgents who are engaged in intensifying raids on an airport vital for sustaining their independence drive.

But analysts said Russian President Vladimir Putin was ready to weather isolation and economic sanctions as the cost of cementing his grip on Ukraine’s industrial east.

More than 70 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have died since Moscow and Kiev signed a September 5 truce aimed at halting the five-month war that has claimed nearly 3,300 lives on the European Union’s doorstep.

Ukrainian defence spokesman Andriy Lysenko said on Saturday that another two soldiers had died in the past day.

The original ceasefire was reinforced by a September 19 deal to set up a demilitarised zone along the frontline that severs a small part of the Russian-speaking southeast claimed by the rebels from the rest of Ukraine.

But the fighting has raged on and no troop withdrawal has followed.

The guerrillas are now waging an concerted battle for control of an airport on the edge of their main stronghold city of Donetsk that could give them access to airlifted Russian supplies.

Outnumbered Ukrainian forces have clung on to the transport hub — once the busiest in the industrial east — with growing desperation. They briefly lost control of the first floor of its old terminal on Friday before claiming to have seized it back.

The escalating assaults pushed US Secretary of State John Kerry to call Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with an urgent demand for the Kremlin to rein in the rebels and call back army units it has massed on Ukraine’s eastern border.

“Russia must use its influence with the separatists to end these attacks immediately and stop the flow of weapons, equipment and militants into Ukraine,” US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

“Russia must also withdraw all of its military forces and equipment including the Russian fighters it is supporting from inside Ukraine.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the European Union have also expressed growing concern.

– Russia stands firm –

But not everyone in Kiev is pleased with the Western response.

Washington has rejected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s appeal for military assistance and some EU members — concerned about possible retaliatory cuts in Russian gas supplies — are trying to reverse the biting sanctions imposed on Putin’s inner circle and state firms.

Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko — a leader of the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution who fought bitterly with Moscow while in power in the subsequent five years — said he was “disappointed” in some eastern European nations for resisting further punitive steps.

“I am particularly disappointed in our own neighbours, and also in Austria,” he told Vienna’s Profil weekly.

The economic punishment imposed already has forced Russia’s largest banks and oil companies to appeal for massive financial rescues that the government can ill afford.

This year’s panicked flight of foreign investors and curbs on Russia’s access to Western money markets are threatening to tip the country’s $3.5-trillion (2.8-trillion-euro) economy into recession by the end of the year.

Ukraine’s tough-talking prime minister — courting nationalist voters ahead of crunch parliamentary polls on October 26 — said it was time for Kiev to declare its own trade war with Russia.

“If the United States and Europe are introducing sanctions, Ukraine must do the same,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a popular Friday night political talk show.

Russia has countered the Western measures by banning the sale of most US and EU food items — a step that prompted some farmers in Europe to rise up in protest against their governments.

Some analysts note that the Kremlin’s use of state media to incite jingoistic fervour — and a sense of Russia coming under Western attack — has raised Putin’s popularity to record levels that make it even less likely that he will change course on Ukraine.

“All signals from President Putin are that the Russian government is prepared to weather whatever economic storms are necessary in pursuit of its broader objectives in Ukraine,” the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy said.