KIEV, Ukraine — President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine said Wednesday that the bulk of Russian forces had withdrawn from Ukrainian territory, a move that he said heightened the chances for a lasting cease-fire in the southeast.
Speaking at a Cabinet meeting broadcast nationally, the president also announced plans to move ahead with a law intended to cement the wobbly truce, reached Friday.
Poroshenko appeared to be trying to create a sense of momentum around the peace process, though a final outcome remains the subject of arduous negotiations. The very law he discussed, for example, has been the source of widely different interpretations.
“Based on the latest information I have received from our intelligence services, 70 percent of the Russian troops have moved back across the border,” Poroshenko said. “This bolsters our hope that the peace initiatives enjoy good prospects.”
He noted the cease-fire remained shaky, accusing Russian-backed militias of trying to provoke Ukrainian forces. He sounded a hopeful note overall, saying the situation had “radically changed.”
The European Union was considering a timetable for imposing sanctions against Russia’s energy and banking sectors in an effort to compel the Kremlin to support the cease-fire more actively.
Federica Mogherini, Italy’s foreign minister and the European Union’s new foreign policy chief-designate, said Wednesday that Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, had told her the cease-fire was “basically holding” but asked for more European pressure on Russia. “He told me we need new sanctions,” she said.
She indicated that European countries were struggling to find a common position on when to actually impose the new sanctions. She said some countries wanted a new discussion by 28 leaders, which would in effect put matters back where they started when they met in Brussels Aug 30.
In late August, Ukrainian troops were overwhelmed by separatists, widely believed to be backed by Russian forces, who reversed weeks of gains. The cease-fire agreement was reached soon afterward.
Russia has long denied sending arms or troops across the border. But NATO has said that at least 1,000 Russians were deployed in late August, and even a separatist commander said that up to 4,000 Russians, including active troops, had fought in Ukraine, although he described them as volunteers who were using their vacation time.
Poroshenko, who is due to meet with President Obama in Washington Sept. 18, also said he would introduce a law that would grant parts of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk temporary self-rule.
Even though representatives of the two main breakaway regions signed the cease-fire agreement, their goals are not always clear. Some leaders have said they would continue to push for independence. They began fighting five months ago to join Russia, although the Kremlin has never signaled it would take them.
“Ukraine has made no concessions with regard to its territorial integrity,” Poroshenko said. “There is no question of federalization or separation of any Ukrainian territory.”
The president said that 700 Ukrainian prisoners had been released, with another 500 in custody. Most of those would appear to be soldiers, because a government spokesman said Wednesday that only 20 soldiers had been released so far.
Poroshenko gave no specifics about the bill on special status for the areas held by the rebels. The agreement reached Friday calls for Ukraine to move toward “decentralization,” first by adopting a temporary law that gives special status to certain districts.
Officials at the Foreign Ministry in Kiev declined to comment on Ukraine’s negotiating position. But a political adviser to Poroshenko said that each of the 12 points in the cease-fire protocol needed to be negotiated in detail, with the government focused first on silencing the guns and obtaining the release of hundreds of prisoners.