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Poroshenko Says Truce In Ukraine Now 'Real'

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaks at the Lowy Institute, a policy think tank, in Sydney on December 12.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaks at the Lowy Institute, a policy think tank, in Sydney on December 12.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said a "real" cease-fire is now in place in eastern Ukraine, and Russia's foreign minister said the shaky truce presents an opportunity to end the conflict.

Speaking on December 12 during a visit to Australia, Poroshenko said for the first time in seven months, Ukraine's military had not suffered a single casualty.

"You simply can't imagine how important it is for me. This is the first night when I don't have either a lost or wounded Ukrainian soldier."

The fresh cease-fire between the Ukraine military and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine went into effect on December 9.

On December 11, a Ukrainian military spokesman said that three soldiers were killed and eight injured over the past 24 hours.

But Poroshenko said the latest 24 hour period had passed without incident and that if the cease-fire held it would be "a great step for peace and stability in Ukraine."

More than 4,300 people have died in the conflict in eastern Ukraine since mid-April, including more than 1,000 killed since talks in Minsk between representatives of Ukraine, the rebels, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) produced a September 5 agreement on a cease-fire and steps toward peace.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "a chance to establish peace in Ukraine has emerged" and called for a new round of the "Contact Group" talks.

"It has been difficult, but a truce has been established, a cease-fire regime has been established," Lavrov said.

He said, "We need to find a way to resume the work of the Contact Group."

Poroshenko said last week that there was a tentative agreement for a meeting on December 9, but the separatists argued for a later date and hopes that talks would resume this week faded.

While talking of peace, Lavrov made clear Russia would press its demand that Kyiv engage directly with the separatists even though they defied Ukraine and angered the West by holding elections in the portions of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that they control on November 2.

Lavrov said there is now a "constructive base to move forward" on the "economic restoration" of the regions and "establishing political dialogue that should eventually lead to constitutional reform" in Ukraine.

Russia insists it supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, but has repeatedly called on Kyiv to give the regions a powerful measure of autonomy and wants the nation to be barred from ever joining NATO.

With prospects for a lasting cease-fire and an end to the conflict still heavily clouded, Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak called for cash-strapped Ukraine to double its military budget next year to the equivalent of about $3.2 billion.

He told parliament that the military planned to spend about $110 million buying new weapons abroad -- without naming the nations they would be purchased from -- and $365 million on domestic arms procurements.

He said Ukraine, which said it was abolishing conscription last year but revived it after the conflict began, would draft 40,000 conscripts and train 10,500 contract soldiers in 2015. He said the total strength of the armed forces would increase to 250,000, from 232,000 this year.

Poltorak said some units would be shifted to the west and south because of what he said were threats from Moldova's pro-Russian breakaway Transdniester region and Russian forces on the Crimean peninsula , the Black Sea peninsula that Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in March.

"We are facing the threat from our eastern border. But there is also a threat from Transdniester and from the south, and the quantity of our units there will be increased," he said.

Underscoring the high hurdles faced by efforts to end the conflict, Poroshenko also criticized India over a visit by the top Russian official in Crimea.

Addressing a think tank in Sydney on December 12, Poroshenko said India was putting "money" ahead of "values" by welcoming Sergei Aksyonov.

"The Indian position doesn't help, it doesn't save Mr. Aksyanov," Poroshenko said. "He is a criminal, it's very simple. He has a criminal background and no doubt he has a criminal future."

Earlier, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the United States was "troubled" by reports that Aksyonov may have been part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's delegation to India and was seeking more information.

Psaki also highlighted reports of new nuclear and defense deals between India and Russia and reiterated Washington's view that it was "not time for business as usual with Russia."

India does not support Western sanctions against Russia and pro-Russian figures in Crimea and eastern Ukraine -- which target Aksyonov among others.

Speaking to reporters after signing a memorandum of understanding to promote business on December 11, Aksyonov said his visit was private and he did not take part in any official events.

He tweeted separately, however, that he had come to India as "a member of the delegation under the leadership of the president of the Russian federation, Vladimir Putin."

The Ukraine crisis began in November 2013, when the government abandoned plans for a landmark agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow, sparking huge protests and unrest that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

The United States, the European Union, and other Western nations have imposed sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and its support for the pro-Russian rebels who control parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.

Moscow denies it has sent troops or weapons into Ukraine despite what Kyiv and NATO say is clear evidence of a direct military role.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, AP, TASS, RIA, and Interfax
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