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Moscow changes tone, embraces Ukraine peace plan

A Ukrainian oligarch may have convinced Putin that President Petro Poroshenko's peace plan is 'an important step towards reaching a final settlement' in the east.

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A child sits in a car standing in line to cross the border into Russia at the Ukrainian-Russian border checkpoint in Izvaryne, eastern Ukraine, on Friday. As fighting continues in Ukraine's east despite President Petro Poroshenko's attempt to implement a cease-fire and peace plan, Moscow has stepped up its support for his efforts.

Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's "unilateral ceasefire" and peace plan has gotten off to a very shaky start, with Kiev authorities accusing east Ukrainian rebels of deliberately keeping the violence going.

But in a significant change in tone, the Kremlin appears to have dropped its early ambivalence about backing Mr. Poroshenko's plan. Now Moscow insists that it is completely behind the ceasefire, and hopes for the success of an initiative being advanced by pro-Russian Ukrainian politician and business oligarch, Viktor Medvedchuk, to mediate between the armed rebels and Kiev authorities.

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"The fact that President Poroshenko has declared a ceasefire is without question an important step towards reaching a final settlement, and perhaps is one of the most important conditions for this to happen. Russia will certainly support these plans," President Vladimir Putin told journalists on Sunday.

That represents a sharp turnaround from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's acid critique of the scheme as recently as Saturday, when he argued that it "looks like an ultimatum" rather than a serious proposal to negotiate a way out of Ukraine's armed standoff.

But by Monday, Mr. Lavrov was reading from the new Kremlin script.

"There is no alternative to ceasefire that should be announced and observed," the official ITAR-Tass quoted Lavrov as saying. "If the Ukrainian crisis is resolved by force, this will hamper stable political settlement."

Russian leaders still blame Ukraine's armed forces for  failing to end the shelling of urban rebel enclaves, which Moscow says has created a "humanitarian catastrophe" and prompted an outflow of refugees from the stricken Donetsk and Luhansk regions into next door Russia.

But experts say that Mr. Medvedchuk, who is trusted by the Kremlin – Mr. Putin is godfather of one of Medvedchuk's daughters – may have convinced the Russian leader that he can successfully bridge the chasm between Kiev and the armed rebels, and help negotiate a formula that would be acceptable to all.

Medvedchuk, whose Ukrainian Choice party is a marginal force in Ukrainian politics, does enjoy appropriate access in both Kiev and eastern Ukraine, but most analysts seem doubtful that the former chief-of-staff to ex-President Viktor Yanukovych and outspokenly pro-Russian politician can win Poroshenko's trust.

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Since Poroshenko's election last month, Putin has  frequently tempered agreeable gestures with distinct threats. He did so again over the weekend by pairing his vocal support for Poroshenko's peace plan with massive military maneuvers in Russia's central district, which will see some 65,000 troops – including highly mobile paratroopers – go onto high alert over the next week.