KIEV — On the eve of a NATO summit meeting focused on Russian aggression, President Vladimir Putin of Russia unveiled Wednesday a seven-point peace plan for Ukraine while President Obama and other Western leaders tried to keep the spotlight on the Kremlin’s role in stoking the conflict there and the penalties it should suffer for doing so.
Never at a loss for theatrical flair, Putin announced the plan soon after arriving on a state visit to Mongolia, brandishing a notebook page on which the first point was that both sides “end active offensive operations.”
Putin’s peace plan, jotted out during a plane ride over Siberia, muddied the diplomatic waters, leaving the West an excuse for delaying punitive sanctions that would also hurt European economies on the verge of a new recession. And it was expected to have some appeal to war-weary Ukrainians.
The ultimate effect, coming after Russian troops intervened in Ukraine last week to beat back a successful government offensive, might be to leave the country as a loose coalition that Moscow could still dominate, which critics of the Russian president say is his real aim.
The timing of Putin’s announcement was lost on no one as he and Western leaders engaged in a global chess game over the fate of Ukraine.
In Tallinn, Estonia, Obama made some of his harshest comments to date about the Kremlin’s armed intervention in Ukraine and hinted that NATO might now be willing to provide military assistance to Kiev. France postponed delivery of one of two warships it is building for Russia.
NATO leaders, including Obama, are to meet in Newport, Wales, on Thursday to discuss bolstering the alliance, including creating a rapid deployment force intended to respond to future Russian military threats and reaffirming its commitment to its smaller members. In addition, European leaders are contemplating a fourth, harsher round of sanctions against Russia.
Putin’s plan seemed to raise more questions than it answered. First, there was no mechanism for implementation. Second, just hours earlier, his own spokesman had repeated the Russian position, widely criticized as implausible, that Moscow could not negotiate a cease-fire because it was not a direct party to the conflict.
Analysts suggested that Putin’s strategy is to convince Kiev that it has no choice but to negotiate, not fight, and to reinforce the idea that the overall outcome depended on Moscow.
“Russia wants to show that it is in command of what is happening,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of a prominent Russian foreign policy journal. “For Russia, it is important first to prevent the Ukrainians from thinking that they could win militarily and to accept the separatist leaders as partners in negotiations.”
The details of the peace deal were sketchy at best, entangled in complicated diplomacy and domestic politics. But it was clear from various, somewhat confused, and contradictory statements that Putin and the Ukrainian president, Petro O. Poroshenko, held an extensive discussion on the issue by telephone early Wednesday.
At first, Poroshenko’s office issued a vague announcement that the two leaders had agreed to a “lasting cease-fire.” The statement was diluted later to say only that both leaders had endorsed the need for a cease-fire and that Poroshenko hoped negotiations would begin in earnest Friday. Putin said his notes emerged from the telephone conversation.
In announcing the plan, Putin said he expected Ukraine and the separatists to wrap up an agreement after a new round of negotiations in Minsk, Belarus, on Friday. Ukraine, Russia, and Europe are all party to the talks there, and they include representatives of the separatists. The two-day NATO summit meeting is also scheduled to end Friday.
Obama devoted his main speech in Estonia to a scathing attack on Russia’s actions against Ukraine. “It is a brazen assault on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, a sovereign and independent European nation,” he said in the speech to more than 1,800 students, young professionals, and civic and political leaders at a concert hall. “It challenges that most basic of principles of our international system: that borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun; that nations have the right to determine their own future.”
Rejecting Putin’s frequent denials of intervention in Ukraine and his assertion that the Russian presence there is part of a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission, Obama said it was clear that Moscow was responsible for escalating tensions. “It’s been the pro-Russian separatists who are encouraged by Russia, financed by Russia, trained by Russia, supplied by Russia, and armed by Russia,” he said.
In Kiev, the idea of a cease-fire was received with mixed emotions.
There is open hostility to the idea that Russia will be able to dictate terms to its weaker neighbor after already wrenching away the Crimean peninsula in March. Any compromise after months of condemning the separatists as “terrorists” risks weakening Poroshenko in central and western Ukraine.
Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk called Putin’s proposal “an attempt to confuse the international community” before the NATO summit meeting and the expected announcement of new sanctions from the European Union.
“Putin’s real plan is the destruction of Ukraine and the resumption of the USSR,” Yatsenyuk said, according to a statement posted on a government website. Peace will come only once Russia withdraws its troops and proxy force, it said.
But many Ukrainians want an end to the violence, horrified by the mounting human toll of more than 2,600 dead and uneasy about the economic costs for a country teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.