The U.S. special envoy for efforts to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine has called a Russian proposal to send United Nations peacekeepers to the region a "step forward" but warns there are still many "obstacles" to the plan suggested by Moscow.
The envoy, Kurt Volker, on September 16 said, "It's very interesting that Russia proposed a UN protection mission.... This is a step forward in a way bringing it up for discussion and bringing it to the [UN] Security Council."
"There's more on the table now that we can work with," he said on the sidelines of the annual Yalta European Strategy conference in Kyiv.
But he added that the mandate of any UN force must not "deepen the division" of the country.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said that the purpose of a proposed UN-mandated peacekeeping mission in war-torn eastern Ukrainian must be to foster peace, not to cement what he called "Russia's occupation" of a chunk of his country.
Poroshenko said the mission should patrol the whole conflict zone including the border between Russia and the separatist-held parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which Kyiv says is used to ship weapons and military personnel in from Russia.
Russia initially indicated that under its plan, the peacekeepers would operate only along the front line separating Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists. Russia also said the plan should be subject to approval by the separatists.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 11 signaled his willingness to look into the idea of deploying the peacekeepers not only along the conflict line but also in other areas where monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) work.
Some 600 observers from the OSCE are in eastern Ukraine, but their presence has failed to halt the fighting.
Volker reiterated that the UN force's mandate should not be limited to protecting the OSCE observers along the conflict demarcation line between zones controlled by Kyiv and those held by the pro-Russia separatists.
The current proposal, he said, "would only protect monitors, not people. It would not give access to control the Russia-Ukraine border. There's a lot of obstacles, a lot of problems with the way it was proposed."
Volker said the force should control the Ukrainian side of the border with Russia, enabling it to help prevent any movement of heavy weapons from Russia to the separatists.
Despite overwhelming evidence, Moscow denies that it has played a role in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The comments came after Volker early on September 16 wrote on Twitter that "The conflict in eastern Ukraine is not an indigenous uprising; it's an externally driven conflict & Russia is responsible."
Russia's state-run TASS news agency quoted Volker on September 16 as saying he might meet with Vladislav Surkov, Putin's point man for the conflict in eastern Ukraine, next month.
No date was set, although TASS quoted a U.S. official as saying the meeting would likely occur in October.
The conflict has killed more than 10,000 civilians and combatants in eastern Ukraine since it erupted in April 2014, after Russia seized control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and fomented separatism in some eastern parts of the country.
The United States and European Union have slapped sanctions on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, TASS, and Interfax