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6 soldiers killed in Ukraine; Germany pushes peace

Wednesday - 5/14/2014, 3:14am  ET

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, left, and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk take part in a briefing in Kiev, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 13, 2014. Steinmeier flew to Ukraine Tuesday to help start talks between the Ukrainian government and its foes following the declaration of independence by two eastern regions. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

NATALIYA VASILYEVA
Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- An insurgent ambush killed six soldiers Tuesday in eastern Ukraine as Germany moved to jumpstart a possible plan toward peace that includes launching a dialogue on decentralizing the government in Kiev.

Ukraine's leadership appeared cool to the plan and U.S. officials view its prospects for success skeptically. But some analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin is more likely to accept a deal that doesn't come from Washington

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is in Ukraine to try to broker a quick launch of talks between the central government and pro-Russia separatists. That would be a first step in implementing a "road map" drawn up by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe aimed at settling the crisis.

The OSCE is a trans-Atlantic security and rights group that includes Russia and the U.S., whose sparring over each other's role in Ukraine sometimes overshadows events on the ground.

Speaking in Brussels, acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk thanked the OSCE for its plan but said Ukraine has drawn up its own "road map" for ending the crisis and noted the people of his country should settle the issue themselves.

A settlement has been elusive, as insurgents in eastern Ukraine seize police stations and government buildings. Two regions in the east have declared themselves independent after a weekend referendum, and one of them, Donetsk, has appealed for annexation by Russia.

Ukrainian forces have mounted an offensive to try to put down the armed insurgents. On Tuesday, the Defense Ministry said six soldiers were killed by insurgents who ambushed a convoy. The separatist leader in Luhansk, one of the regions that declared independence, was shot and wounded, insurgents said.

The U.S. and Western European countries accuse Russia of fomenting the unrest, with the goal of destabilizing the country or seeking a pretext to invade and seize eastern regions, which are largely Russian-speaking and the heartland of Ukrainian industry.

Russia in turn denounces Ukraine's caretaker government, which took power after pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February following months of large protests. Moscow calls it a nationalist junta encouraged by Washington.

Western countries have slapped an array of sanctions on Russia both for its alleged role in the east and for its annexation of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that voted to split from Ukraine in March.

With the tensions high between Washington and Moscow, Steinmeier may be a more effective interlocutor. A senior official in the U.S. administration told The Associated Press that the U.S. had been coordinating with Germany and encouraging its leadership for a diplomatic path in Ukraine. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of not being authorized to discuss the Ukraine crisis in public.

Putin "is far more likely to bow to pressure if it's going to come from (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel than Barack Obama," said Michael Geary of the Institute for European Global Studies at Switzerland's University of Basel.

The OSCE plan, by encouraging discussion of decentralizing the government, suggests that the West sees Russia as having the upper hand. Moscow has pushed for the "federalization" of Ukraine -- giving the regions more powers.

Keir Giles, a military analyst at the Chatham House think-tank in London, said that what Moscow wants is for "Russia-backed separatists to have a voice in drafting a new constitution for Ukraine, which essentially means Russia dictating what the constitution should include."

It is unclear which representatives could be included from the separatists' side in the discussions. Ukraine has said it will not meet with "terrorists."

"Neither the local government nor the protesters nor armed separatists fully control the regions in the east. It's not clear whom the Ukrainian government should be talking to," said Kiev-based political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.

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. It 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.

Russia called for a swift implementation of the OSCE plan, saying its demand to end violence means that Kiev 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 insurgents.

"We are demanding (they) stop intimidating civilians by using force or threatening to use it," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

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