KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The head of NATO on Wednesday lauded Ukraine's weaponry pullback in the east, but also called upon Russia to step up efforts to bring peace to the war-torn region.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters at the Black Sea port of Odessa on Wednesday that NATO supports Ukraine's efforts to pull back heavy weapons in the east.
"We welcome all efforts to reduce tensions and withdraw forces and to make sure that we have a peaceful resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine," said Stoltenberg, who visited four NATO vessels that stopped by Odessa during their Black Sea patrol.
The disengagement of Ukrainian government troops and Russia-backed separatists has been seen as the final hurdle before much-anticipated peace talks between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany aimed to put an end to the deadly conflict.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was elected in April, made it a top priority of his presidency to put an end to the conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced more than a million people.
The commitment of Zelenskiy's government to pull back heavy weapons from two areas along the line of contact in the east has triggered streets protests in the capital, Kyiv, and other Ukrainian cities where many feared the move opens the door to concessions to Russia.
The disengagement finally began Tuesday after Zelenskiy visited the area and confronted armed veterans who came there to try to hamper the troops pullback.
Asked about the move on a visit to Hungary, Russian President Vladimir Putin remained non-committal, saying it remains to be seen if Zelenskiy could overcome domestic resistance to the move.
"Mr Zelenskiy doesn't look like a Ukrainian nationalist, and it's hard for me to say if he can manage them," Putin said at a news conference. "The question is if he can deliver what he said in public and what he considers necessary to do."
He added that he wouldn't judge Zelenskiy's tactics of engaging in an argument with those who resisted his orders.
"I don't know if he did the right thing as president and commander-in-chief to go to the line of contact to try to persuade the people who refuse to obey his orders," Putin said. "It's not such a difficult thing to separate the conflicting sides in two villages, but it has dragged on for years and it's now clear why — because the nationalists don't want to leave and don't want to let the Ukrainian troops out."
The Russian leader added that he was ready to have a four-way meeting with the leaders of Ukraine, France and Germany, but added that "it needs to be well-prepared and produce specific results that will help the settlement."
Stoltenberg, meanwhile, said that Russia has a "special responsibility" in the conflict and urged Moscow to "withdraw all their troops and their officers" from the area.
Russia has denied sending weapons and troops to help the separatists, but overwhelming evidence suggested otherwise.
Speaking at a conference in Mariupol just 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the front line, Zelenskiy on Wednesday stressed the need not only to stop the hostilities and bring the rebel-held region back into Kyiv's fold but also spoke about "reconciliation and healing the wounds" between people in the rebel-held areas and other Ukrainians.
In an apparent reaction to street protests by nationalists and veterans against the weaponry pullback, Zelenskiy said the government "has to find a solution that would be supported by an absolute majority."
"Society needs to be aware and needs to accept the terms of the re-integration" of the rebel-occupied territories, he said. "The lack of a common vision will paralyze our movement."
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.