Ukraine launches Western-sponsored roundtable "national unity" talks on Wednesday but without pro-Moscow rebels who are waging an armed insurgency in the east that threatens to tear the country apart.
Interim President Oleksander Turchynov opened the talks on Wednesday by saying Kiev was ready to listen to pro-Russian rebels in the east but would not bow to blackmail.
National lawmakers and regional officials, religious leaders and civic activists are attending the talks, part of a "road map" laid out by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The OSCE plan calls on both the Ukrainian government and the separatists to refrain from violence. It also seeks immediate amnesty for those involved in the fighting and talks on decentralizing the country\’s political system and on the status of the Russian language.
But the separatist rebels are not represented, raising doubts about the negotiations’ effectiveness.
“We haven’t received any offers to join a round table,” Denis Pushilin, an insurgent leader in Donetsk, told the Associated Press. “If the authorities in Kyiv want a dialogue, they must come here. If we go to Kyiv, they will arrest us.”
President Turchynov said his government would use legal means to stop "those who, with weapons in their hands, are trying to wage war against their own country and impose their — or, rather, the will of another state."
Seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed and eight wounded when they were ambushed by pro-Russian separatists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Kramatorsk, the Ukrainian defence ministry said.
It was the biggest single loss of life by the Ukrainian army since soldiers were sent into the mainly Russian-speaking east of the country to break up armed separatist groups who have seized control of towns and public buildings in a bid to further demands for autonomy.
The ministry, in a statement published on its website, said an armored column came under fire as it approached a bridge near a village 20 km from Kramatorsk, one of several hot spots in the region where the army has had only limited success against the separatists.
About 30 rebels, who had taken cover among bushes along a river, attacked with grenade-launchers and automatic weapons, immediately killing two soldiers and wounding three others, it said.
Donetsk is one of two regions declared separate from Ukraine after referendums deemed illegal by Kiev, the US and EU.
After declaring independence from Ukraine, separatist leaders in the self-declared Donetsk People\’s Republic also asked Moscow to consider formally "absorbing" the region into the Russian Federation.
Russia\’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it expects the pro-Russian "self-defense forces" in eastern Ukraine to "react appropriately" if Kyiv agrees to halt "punitive actions" there and withdraw its military forces, as well as right-wing paramilitary forces and "mercenaries," from the region.
Russian news agencies Wednesday quoted officials of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as saying that the election will not be held in the two breakaway regions.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department on Tuesday released satellite pictures showing Russian forces near the Ukrainian border, despite assurances from Moscow last week that it had withdrawn its huge military force.
Commercial satellite photos, dated May 9, also appear on NATO\’s Twitter account. The pictures show helicopters parked near the Russian border town of Belgorad. A second photo, taken Sunday across the border from the embattled Ukraine city of Mariupol, showed what U.S. officials described as Russian armored vehicles.
After declaring independence, separatist leaders in Donetsk asked Moscow to consider formally "absorbing" the region into the Russian Federation. The Kremlin has not yet responded.
Moscow, which has said it respects the results of Sunday\’s referendums and called for a "dialogue" between the Ukrainian government and the two breakaway regions, has not yet responded to the Donetsk request to be absorbed by Russia.
Moscow retaliated for U.S. sanctions on Tuesday, casting doubt on the long-term future of the International Space Station, a $100 billion, 15-nation project which was supposed to end the space race of the Cold War era.
Putin said on Wednesday that Russia\’s defense industry should stop relying on foreign components and should be self-sufficient following Western sanctions imposed on Moscow over the crisis in Ukraine.
“We need to do our utmost for anything used in our defense sector to be produced on our territory, so that we would not be dependent on anyone…,” he told a meeting of defense officials at his Black Sea residence.
Washington has threatened to target some high-tech exports to Russia as part of sanctions, in addition to visa bans and asset freezes already in place.
In an apparent retaliatory move, Russia on Tuesday rejected a U.S. request to prolong the use of the International Space Station, a 15-nation project, beyond 2020.
Washington wants to keep the space station in use until at least 2024.