Ukraine warns it may take `years` to end separatist war

Ukraine`s defence minister warned Wednesday it may take years to settle the ex-Soviet republic`s pro-Russian separatist conflict that has killed nearly 9,200 people and plunged Moscow`s relations with the West to a post-Cold War low.

AFP| Updated: Apr 21, 2016, 01:22 AM IST

Kiev: Ukraine`s defence minister warned Wednesday it may take years to settle the ex-Soviet republic`s pro-Russian separatist conflict that has killed nearly 9,200 people and plunged Moscow`s relations with the West to a post-Cold War low.

Stepan Poltorak also accused Russia of keeping several thousand troops in the war-torn eastern region and said his impoverished country was in dire need of Western weapons to help quash the two-year revolt.

"In my opinion, it will take years," Poltorak told a small group of reporters when asked how long it may take to resolve the war.

"As for the need for lethal weapons, of course they are always needed," he added.

"But it is very difficult to tell whether their delivery is possible. I think that, at this stage, it is practically impossible."

The call for arms is justified by "the human loss, the misery and the serious damage done to the economy," said Poltorak, adding that the war had so far cost 9,200 lives and left another 1.5 million people displaced.

The United States and the European Union back Kiev`s claims that Russia has been playing an active part in a war that began two months after the February 2014 ouster of Ukraine`s Moscow-backed president.

The White House refers to the presence of "combined Russian-separatist forces" in Ukraine`s eastern industrial regions of Lugansk and Donetsk.

The European Union has sanctioned Moscow military officials whom it accused of "being involved in supporting the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine."But Washington and EU nations have only provided Ukraine with support equipment such as advanced radar technology out of apparent fear that arming its forces may only provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin denies backing the militias and calls Russians caught or spotted in the war zone vacationing or off-duty troops.

Poltorak estimated the number of combined rebel and Russian soldiers fighting government forces at more than 40,000.

"There are slightly over 7,000 Russian troops. They are being rotated all the time."

He said the insurgents would continue to stage attacks aimed at provoking retaliatory strikes that would make Kiev look like "the side that is initiating violations of the Minsk (peace) agreements" signed in February 2015.

That deal helped stem the worst of the violence but failed to find a workable solution that would settle the separatist regions` status.

Despite the relative calm since another ceasefire deal in September, the risk of a renewal of hostilities cannot be ignored, Poltorak warned.

The rebels "are preparing offensives" while at the same time "improving their defence systems, fearing an attack from us," he said.

But Poltorak added that the insurgents` ability to unfurl a wide-scale offensive was "limited" at this stage.

Nevertheless the ongoing conflict is "a wound" that is preventing Ukraine from joining the EU and NATO, the minister said.

Ukraine believes Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014 and plotted the eastern conflict in order to keep its western neighbour Ukraine in its sphere of influence and keep it from seeking membership in the European Union and the NATO military alliance.