WASHINGTON – The United States cautiously welcomed a Russian proposal to send U.N. peacekeepers into eastern Ukraine, but insisted Wednesday the force should be deployed throughout embattled eastern Ukraine and not just on the line of conflict.
A U.N. force is "worth exploring," the State Department said, a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country would ask the U.N. Security Council to send peacekeepers to patrol the front line separating Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists. The U.S. said such a force could protect Ukrainians of all ethnicities and help restore Ukraine's sovereignty.
"Any such force should have a broad mandate for peace and security throughout the occupied territory in Ukraine," said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
Putin's unexpected embrace of a U.N. force has been greeted with tentative optimism from countries that have worked to solve the crisis, given that Ukraine, too, has long called for U.N. peacekeepers. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said it showed "Russia has effected a change in its policies that we should not gamble away."
Yet a fault line immediately emerged that could scuttle prospects for an agreement: Disagreement over the scope of the peacekeepers' mandate.
Putin has insisted the peacekeepers be deployed only along the line separating the rebel-controlled territories and the area under Ukrainian government control where clashes occur. Putin told reporters Tuesday that peacekeepers could help ensure safety for international observers who are monitoring a cease-fire that Germany and France brokered in 2015.
The U.S. and Ukraine are concerned that deploying peacekeepers only along the contact line would actually solidify the line's status as the new de facto border between Ukrainian-controlled territory and separatist-controlled territory in the country's east. The U.S. and Ukraine want peacekeepers deployed throughout the separatist-controlled regions stretching to the Ukraine-Russia border. The U.S. has long accused Moscow of sending military equipment and even Russian troops across that border and into eastern Ukraine to bolster the separatists.
In the past, the separatists have opposed Ukraine's suggestion to deploy peacekeepers in the war zone.
Russia has circulated a proposed text for the peacekeeping mandate to the U.N. Security Council for members to review, a Security Council diplomat said Wednesday. The diplomat wasn't authorized to comment publicly and requested anonymity.
In a bid to give new momentum to peace efforts, the Trump administration recently named a new special envoy for Ukraine negotiations. But rather than try to broker a peacekeepers agreement itself, the U.S. emphasized it was supporting the so-called Normandy countries in their efforts.
The "Normandy Format" peace talks between Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France have largely stalled of late, with a truce timed to the start of the new school year breaking down almost immediately after it was agreed upon in late August. Fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists in the region has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014.
Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.
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