Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Friday that there was no military solution to his country's conflict with Russia and that Ukraine needed European economic and political support to help avoid an escalation.
The Ukrainian president, who struck a cease-fire with Russia last Friday, said he intends to give Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists in the east greater autonomy over their domestic affairs and that he hoped his "fragile" cease-fire with Moscow would hold.
Russia, which has denied sending combat troops to Ukraine, has been withdrawing its forces, which are now estimated to have dropped to as low as 1,000.
The pro-Russian separatists in the heavily industrialized eastern part of the country have been demanding independence and closer association with Russia. Poroshenko has said independence was not an option, but has endorsed greater decentralization of his country.
He expressed hope that further bloodshed could be avoided in a five-month conflict which has already claimed 3,000 lives. He predicted that Ukraine would win back its lost and disputed territory by remaining united and by raising economic conditions for its 45 million people.
"I'm confident that we will win an economic, demographic, and liberal competition," he said. "Our standard of living will be much better. This is the only way we can win."
Poroshenko spoke at the 11th annual gathering of western and pro-western officials, diplomats, and analysts at YES, the Yalta European Strategy conference, which for the first time is meeting in Kiev rather than Yalta following Russia's annexation of Crimea in March.
Surprisingly, there has been little discussion of America's role in thwarting Russian aggression and almost no senior American official presence at a meeting where U.S. officials and representatives have traditionally been center stage. The Ukrainian president did not mention President Obama in his remarks Friday morning and barely referred to his upcoming trip to the United States next week. He said only that he was looking forward to his appearance before Congress on Sept 18 and unspecified discussions in Washington.
Among the senior Ukrainian officials at the meeting, only Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine, called upon the "world" to help arm the Ukrainian army. Even she did not directly urge the United States to provide such assistance. "If the world is not willing to defend its values, please arm Ukraine with modern weaponry to that we can do so," she said. "We have the right to defend our country and values in a strong and effective way."
The keynote panel Friday featured appearances by Poroshenko, Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, and Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the president of Estonia, who made an emotional appeal for western support for Ukraine in its effort to defend its territorial integrity and independence from Russian aggression. "It's up to Europe to make all of this stop," he said.
The gathering, known colloquially as a kind of "Davos East," a reference to the influential annual gathering of comparable officials and diplomats in Switzerland, has more participants this year than every before, but fewer high-level Americans.
Last year at Yalta, featured speakers included Bill and Hillary Clinton, and former CIA director David Petraeus. Hillary Clinton, who had already resigned as Obama's secretary of state, spoke of America's strong support for Ukraine.
But the Obama administration has not led an effort to confront Russia over its land grab in Crimea. It has provided $70 million in "non-lethal" assistance to Ukraine, but even most of this aid has not yet been delivered, Ukrainian officials said and American officials in Washington confirmed.
On Friday, another wave of American and European sanctions against Russia took effect. The American sanctions, which go even further than those imposed by the European Union, bar financing for some Russian state-owned entities and companies and impose asset freezes against more Russian politicians and business associates of President Vladimir Putin. After the initial round of sanctions, Russia banned the import of chicken and other western food and now has threatened to impose other unspecified retaliatory measures.
Poroshenko welcomed the new sanctions and promises of support he received last week at a NATO summit in Wales. "I never felt before this level of solidarity," he said. "I feel myself a full member of the European family."
But NATO officials, including Americans, have made clear that NATO membership is not in the cards for Ukraine. And even EU leaders have told Poroshenko and other Ukrainians that "associate member" status is the most this besieged country can hope for in the short-run -- barring a change in the geo-strategic situation and absent bolder economic reform and moves against corruption that the Ukrainian president has promised, but made slow progress implementing.
The Ukrainian and European parliaments are scheduled to approve Ukraine's new "associate member" status in simultaneous votes in their respective parliaments linked in a video teleconference on September 16.
Poroshenko vowed Friday to introduce new anti-corruption legislation in Parliament, which he recently dissolved after it became clear that members would not back such serious economic reform. Ukraine is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in October.
Poroshenko said he hoped that the cease-fire negotiated with Moscow in Minsk would hold so that he could focus on rebuilding Ukraine's economy, which has been battered by five months of war, years of pervasive corruption and disastrous economic policies.
Eastern Ukraine has been relatively quiet since the cease-fire, and tensions have gradually eased. Reuters reported that overnight Thursday, Ukrainian forces and the separatists each handed over 37 prisoners-of-war at a site north of the rebel-held city of Donetsk. The cease-fire requires the exchange of all prisoners.