President Petro Poroshenko has pledged to give separatist regions in eastern Ukraine more autonomy, but said he would not allow the country to be ripped apart.
The pro-Western leader also announced on Wednesday that Russia had withdrawn most of the troops it allegedly sent across the border to back pro-Kremlin rebels, a move that could further ease tensions after the signing of a ceasefire deal last week.
His declaration came just as European Union envoys were gathering in Brussels to discuss a new wave of sanctions against Moscow over its role in the conflict in the former Soviet state.
Poroshenko said the ceasefire – the first backed by both Kiev and Moscow since pro-Russian rebels launched an uprising against Kiev’s rule in April – had dramatically improved the security situation in the war-ravaged region.
“According to the latest information I received from our intelligence headquarters, 70 per cent of Russia’s forces have been removed,” the presidency website quoted Poroshenko as telling his most powerful ministers.
Poroshenko said he intended to submit a bill to parliament next week granting parts of the east temporary self-rule, but that it did not mean they were slipping out from under Kiev’s control.
“Ukraine will not make any concessions on issues of its territorial integrity,” he said.
“There is and can be no talk of federalisation or some estrangement (by the rebel-held regions).”
Russian President Vladimir Putin had long sought to turn Ukraine into a loose federation in which the eastern industrial rustbelt had the right to establish its own trade and diplomatic relations with Moscow.
And one rebel leader immediately vowed to seek outright independence in what promises to be arduous peace talks aimed at putting a permanent end to the five-month conflict that has killed more than 2700 people and frayed East-West ties.
“We are not considering remaining part of Ukraine,” Donetsk “deputy prime minister” Andrei Purgin said.
Poroshenko’s announcement of a partial Russian troop withdrawal could affect the discussions of EU diplomats due to decide on Wednesday when to impose new economic sanctions against the Kremlin.
NATO had said last month that Russia had funnelled in at least 1000 elite troops and heavy weaponry to support pro-Kremlin rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine, dramatically raising the stakes in the conflict.
“Before the ceasefire was announced, Ukraine was losing the lives of dozens of its heroes on a daily basis,” he told the cabinet.
“The situation has radically changed at the front.”
The US State Department said on Tuesday it agreed that the truce was “mostly holding”.
However, one rebel fighter at a checkpoint outside the airport in Donetsk, the main rebel stronghold in the east, scoffed at the suggestions.
“Here’s your ceasefire,” said Dmitry, pointing to part of a rocket. “These little gifts arrived after the truce.”