Brussels: NATO head Jens Stoltenberg will make his first visit to Ukraine later this month, Kiev's foreign minister said on Monday, as efforts to solve the conflict between pro-Russian rebels and government forces pick up pace.
"It should be a symbolic first visit," Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told journalists while visiting Stoltenberg at NATO HQ in Brussels.
"The date will be formally announced in the near future. We agreed to announce the date jointly," he said, adding that it was expected to take place this month.
A NATO official said he could not confirm the visit to Ukraine, a key partner but not a member of the 28-nation military alliance.
NATO has responded sharply to the Ukraine crisis and Russia's annexation of Crimea by increasing its readiness posture and rotating troops and equipment through its former communist eastern members to ease their fears that Moscow wants to reassert its hold over them.
Klimkin said his government "would fully use the potential of the visit" to cement ties and boost cooperation with NATO, with Stoltenberg invited to attend a session of Ukraine's national security council.
He rejected any suggestion the trip could be considered a provocation to Russia, decrying its support for pro-Moscow rebels in the east of the country.
"With the backdrop of what is happening around Donbass it is hard to talk about a provocation," he said.
Russia denies any direct role in a conflict which has cost nearly 7,000 lives since April last year and plunged East-West relations into a deep freeze reminiscent of the Cold War.
Earlier Monday, French President Francois Hollande appeared to offer an important opening to Russia on lifting sanctions as a truce agreed in February finally appeared to be holding.
Hollande said several commitments in what is known as the Minsk accord still had to be honoured, but "if this process is successful, then I will ask for sanctions to be lifted."
Klimkin is in Brussels for talks later today with top EU and Russia officials on the free trade provisions included in the EU-Ukraine Association Accord which first sparked the crisis in 2013.
Russia said the trade provisions harmed its economic interests in Ukraine, a major market, but then agreed to talk on how to minimise the problems.
The EU says the free trade agreement will go into effect from January and at trilateral talks in May, Moscow was said to have dropped its objections.