NEWPORT, Wales — Ukraine’s government and rebels voiced hope Thursday that they were within reach of a peace deal that could spell a quick end to bloodshed in eastern Ukraine, even as NATO leaders and Ukraine’s president agreed that Russia should be punished for its role in the insurgency.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he was ready to order a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine if a deal is signed at scheduled talks Friday in Minsk, Belarus. The rebels said they were ready to declare a truce if agreement can reached on a political settlement for the mostly Russian-speaking region.
Before flying to Wales for his meetings Thursday with NATO leaders, Poroshenko discussed the outlines of a peace deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and both voiced optimism about reaching agreement.
Since mid-April, Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting government troops in eastern Ukraine in a conflict the U.N. estimates has killed nearly 2,600 people. On Thursday, a NATO military officer told The Associated Press the ranks of Russian soldiers directly involved in the conflict have grown.
“Our current assessment is that several thousand Russian combat troops are actively engaged in fighting in Ukraine,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to make public remarks on intelligence matters. NATO previously had put the number of Russians at 1,000.
Russian forces “are equipped with a spectrum of combat capabilities, including hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles, as well as artillery and combat support elements,” the NATO officer said.
Kremlin officials repeatedly have denied their troops or military assets are involved.
Facing major challenges with simultaneous conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq and a winding-down of operations in Afghanistan, NATO leaders began a two-day summit at a golf resort in southern Wales. Before the official proceedings started, Poroshenko met with Obama and the leaders of NATO’s four major European powers: British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
A White House official said Obama and the other Western leaders expressed solidarity with Ukraine and agreed Russia should be punished for its conduct.
“The leaders reiterated their condemnation of Russia’s continued flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and agreed on the need for Russia to face increased costs for its actions,” U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said. “The leaders also expressed their strong support for President Poroshenko’s efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict.”
Rhodes told reporters the U.S. and European Union were coordinating on additional sanctions against Russia that could be levied “in the days to come.”
Later in the day, Poroshenko met with the heads of state and government from all 28 NATO member states, even though NATO officials have made clear that membership for Ukraine isn’t in the cards anytime soon.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said reports that Ukraine was seeking to join NATO were “a blatant attempt to derail all the efforts” to seek a peaceful solution to the fighting.
In the past two weeks, the rebels have made substantial advances against Ukrainian forces, including opening a new front along the Sea of Azov. That offensive has raised concerns the rebels are aiming to seize Mariupol, a major port of about 500,000 people, and create a land corridor between Russia and Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in March.
An AP reporter saw three military-type vehicles ablaze Thursday in Berezove, a village along the main road connecting Mariupol with Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city. Rebel fighters were on the move, indicating they could be trying to take control of the strategic highway.
Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador said a convoy of Russian tanks and armored vehicles had moved Thursday from the eastern resort town of Novoazovsk toward Mariupol and was stopped by Ukrainian forces and civilians. Yuriy Sergeyev told reporters in New York that “the fight is still going on” and said the convoy had four tanks, three armored vehicles and about 50 soldiers.
Later, columns of smoke rose outside the nearby village of Olenivka, suggesting that Ukrainian forces were trying to retake it.
The joint operation against the rebels said in a statement on its Facebook page that as of Thursday evening, fighting was continuing around Shirokine, a village about 12 miles east of Mariupol. The statement also said rebels and Russian forces were moving missile launchers toward Mariupol.
The battles have taken a heavy toll on Ukraine’s army. National Security Council spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko said 837 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed and 3,044 wounded since the fighting began.
Specifics of the hoped-for peace deal have yet to be finalized. Putin has suggested that rebels halt their offensive while the Ukrainian government forces should pull back away from shelling residential areas.
Poroshenko, in turn, has called for the withdrawal of foreign troops, a diplomatic reference to Russian forces, as well as establishing a buffer zone on the border and releasing all Ukrainian prisoners held in Russia.
Both sides have expressed readiness for international monitoring of the truce and a prisoners’ exchange.
In a visit to Kiev, U.S. Sen. John McCain said Washington, D.C. should enact “truly crushing sanctions” against Russia and provide Ukraine with defensive weapons.
“The real provocation for Putin has been the perception of Western weakness. What should be clear is that Putin’s appetite only grows with the eating.”
Obama missed the start of the full-dress NATO meeting on the crisis in Ukraine. White House officials said his meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II ran late, delaying the president’s arrival.
AP Photo/Sergei Grits Unmarked military vehicles burn on a country road in the village of Berezove, eastern Ukraine, on Thursday, after a clash between pro-government troops and Russian-backed separatist militia.×
AP Photo/Sergei Grits An unmarked military vehicle burns on a country road in the village of Berezove, eastern Ukraine, on Thursday, after a clash between pro-government troops and Russian-backed separatist militia.×