A reluctant Ukrainian government agreed to launch discussions Wednesday on giving more powers to the regions under a peace plan brokered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but it remains wary of engaging with pro-Russian separatists who have declared independence in two eastern regions.
Ukraine's prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was to chair the first in a series of roundtables set to include national lawmakers, government figures and regional officials in line with proposals drafted by the OSCE, a top transatlantic security and rights group that includes Russia and the United States.
Russia has strongly backed the Swiss-drafted road map, but Ukraine has remained cool to the plan and U.S. officials view its prospects for success skeptically.
The new discussions come after violence flared in Ukraine on Tuesday with at least seven government soldiers killed in an ambush in the country’s east, undermining international efforts to forge dialogue between Kyiv and breakaway regions.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said that a group of over 30 pro-Russian militiamen, armed with grenade launchers and guns, attacked a convoy traveling near a village some 12 miles from the eastern city of Kramatorsk. The ministry's website said eight others were wounded and that all the dead and injured were later evacuated.
Also on Tueday, Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier traveled to the Ukrainian capital in a bid to forge talks between the government in Kyiv and pro-Russian groups in the east that voted on Sunday for self-rule.
Calling for "a national dialogue under Ukrainian leadership," Steinmeier said: "I hope this will create the conditions to take a step to bring back occupied territory, disarm armed groups step-by-step and re-install the authority of the state."
He also said the presidential election will "play a crucial role" in bringing the country out of crisis.
The call for talks comes two days after the contentious referendum sparked fresh fears of protracted unrest. On Monday, pro-Russia separatists, in Luhansk and Donetsk declared independence. Representatives for the Donetsk People’s Republic additionally asked Russia to annex the region.
It followed weeks of unrest and uncertainty for people living in Ukraine’s east.
Pro-Russia groups have seized government buildings and clashed with government forces in the region over the past month and are holding some journalists and others captive. Steinmeier voiced hope for a quick release of the hostages and the handover of occupied buildings. He also stressed the importance of holding Ukraine's presidential vote as planned on May 25.
Steinmeier's trip is part of the road map for settling Ukraine's crisis laid out by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a trans-Atlantic security group.
Russia called Tuesday for a swift implementation of the OSCE plan, saying its demand to end violence means that the central government in Kyiv should stop its military operation to recapture buildings in the east, lift its blockade of cities and towns, pull its forces from eastern regions and release all political prisoners.
"We are demanding [they] stop intimidating civilians by using force or threatening to use it," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
It added that it expects separatists in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions to respond in kind if Kyiv does all that.
"[The road map] creates conditions for launching a broad national dialogue involving all political forces and regions of Ukraine, aimed at reconciliation and a comprehensive constitutional reform intended to stop the nation from sliding further to catastrophe," the ministry said.
Russia also urged the United States and the European Union to persuade authorities in Kyiv to prioritize discussions of giving more powers to Ukraine's regions ahead of the country's May 25 presidential vote.
The Ukrainian government and the West have accused Russia of fomenting mutiny in the east to derail Ukraine's presidential vote and possibly grab more land.
Accordingly, Kyiv denounced Sunday’s referendums as a “criminal farce.”
Ukraine's acting president called the vote a sham and Western governments said it violated international law.
Russia has shown no immediate intention of annexing eastern Ukraine like it did the strategic Crimean Peninsula in March. Instead, Moscow has pushed for talks between Ukraine's central government and eastern regions on Ukraine's future — a cautious stance suggesting that Russia prefers a political rather than a military solution to its worst standoff with the West since the Cold War.
The interim government in Kyiv had been hoping the May 25 presidential vote would unify the country behind a new, democratically chosen leadership. But Ukraine's crisis could grow even worse if regions start rejecting the presidential election. Dozens of people have been killed since Ukrainian forces began trying to retake some eastern cities.
The separatists in Luhansk said Monday they wouldn't hold the presidential vote.
The OSCE plan calls on all sides to refrain from violence and urges amnesty for those involved in the unrest as well as talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. The group has also promised to set up rapid response teams to quickly investigate all acts of violence.
The plan envisages a quick launch of high-level round tables across the country bringing together national lawmakers and representatives of the central government and the regions.
Serhiy Taruta, the Kyiv-appointed governor of the Donetsk region, on Tuesday urged the Ukrainian parliament to authorize a June 15 vote that could help the regions gain more powers while remaining part of Ukraine.
While he dismissed Sunday's separatist vote as an "opinion poll," Taruta said everyone in Ukraine, including those in the rebellious east, "should hear answers to the questions that they are concerned about."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press