West raises pressure on Russia to save Ukraine truce

Dmitry Zaks
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Russian President vladimir Putin delivers a speech at the sixth annual VTB Capital "RUSSIA CALLING!" Investment Forum in Moscow on October 2, 2014

Russian President vladimir Putin delivers a speech at the sixth annual VTB Capital "RUSSIA CALLING!" Investment Forum in Moscow on October 2, 2014 (AFP Photo/Alexey Druzhinin)

Kiev (AFP) - Western pressure mounted on Russia Saturday to save Ukraine's crumbling truce as pro-Kremlin insurgents staged 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.

At least 75 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 around 3,300 lives on the European Union's doorstep.

Ukrainian defence spokesman Andriy Lysenko said on Saturday that another two soldiers were killed in the past day. Local authorities said four civilians -- including two children who tried moving an unexploded shell -- had also lost their lives.

The original ceasefire was reinforced by a September 19 deal to set up a demilitarised zone along the frontline that severs a swathe 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 rebels have set sights on an airport on the edge of their main stronghold city of Donetsk that could give them unfettered access to 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 flank.

"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.

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

- 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 cronies and state firms.

Kiev partially blames this indecision for the militants' flat rejection of a political settlement offer that would have handed them three years of self-rule within a unified Ukraine.

A few hundred Donetsk residents gathered Saturday under a soaring statue of Soviet founder Lenin to celebrate six months since the day the first band of masked gunmen proclaimed independence after seizing the city's government.

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 former Soviet satellites' refusal to be firmer with Russia.

"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.

The panicked flight of 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 for the first time since 2009.

Ukraine's tough-talking prime minister -- courting nationalist voters ahead of October 26 parliamentary polls on - 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 most US and EU food items -- a step that prompted some farmers in Europe to rise up in protest against their governments.

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 which make it even less likely 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.