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Associated Press
A pro-Russian fighter looks on in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, after a cease-fire was ordered on Friday.

Putin backs cease-fire, urges Ukraine to begin peace talks

– Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed support Saturday for Ukraine’s unilateral cease-fire in its battle against pro-Russian separatists and appealed to both sides to halt all military operations.

But he warned that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s blueprint for peace would not be viable without action to start peace negotiations.

The qualified Russian backing for Poroshenko’s effort to halt the conflict was another in a series of shifting Kremlin moves and statements that leave unclear the level of Moscow’s commitment to de-escalating the conflict.

Putin’s conciliatory words came on the same day he ordered large-scale military exercises that NATO criticized as likely to raise tensions. U.S. officials also accused Russian troops of moving back into positions near the border with Ukraine’s troubled east.

The Kremlin said in a statement that Putin “calls on the opposing sides to halt any military activities and sit down at the negotiating table.”

Poroshenko bills the unilateral cease-fire as designed to inspire a wider peace plan that would include an amnesty for pro-Russian separatist fighters who disarm.

Ukrainian troops have struggled for weeks to suppress separatists who have seized buildings and declared independence in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions near the border with Russia.

Ukraine and the United States have accused Russia of supporting the insurgency, including by permitting tanks to cross the border and wind up in the rebels’ arsenal. Russia counters that it is not supporting the insurgents, and Russians who have joined the fighting are doing so as private citizens.

Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s embattled east have dismissed the cease-fire as fake – and continued to shoot at Ukraine border positions after the truce began Friday night.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said six troops were wounded in attacks on border posts shortly before the truce’s start, while three others were wounded in later mortar and sniper attacks on two posts.

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