'Apocalyptic' all-out war with Ukraine unlikely, says Putin
Vladimir Putin has said he thinks the prospect of all-out war between Russia and Ukraine is unlikely.
Asked in an interview with Russian state television if he thought the current situation could lead to war, the Russian president said: "I think that such an apocalyptic scenario is unlikely and I hope that it will never happen.
"If the Minsk accords - agreeing a ceasefire - are complied with, then I am sure that the situation will gradually get back to normal."
He added: "No one needs a conflict, moreover an armed one, on the periphery of Europe."
His comments came as pro-Russia separatists said yesterday they had begun withdrawing heavy weapons from the frontline under the recent ceasefire deal - but the Ukrainian military, which says it will not pull back until fighting stops, reported further rebel shelling.
Fighting has certainly eased in eastern Ukraine in recent days after the rebels initially ignored a ceasefire that was due to start on February 15 and stormed the government-held town of Debaltseve.
After taking the town, the Moscow-backed rebels have consistently indicated they want the truce to take effect.
"Today at 9 in the morning (0600 GMT) the planned withdrawal of heavy equipment started," rebel commander Eduard Basurin said yesterday.
"We're pulling it back 50km from the boundary line ... Of course, we won't say exactly where we're pulling it back to."
However, Kiev claimed pro-Russian forces massing near Ukraine's port city of Mariupol continued to attack government troop positions.
Continued hostilities meant a pull-back of heavy weapons could not go ahead as agreed, Ukrainian officials said.
"As Ukrainian positions are still being fired upon, there can be no talk yet of a withdrawal of arms," Vladyslav Seleznyov, a military spokesman, wrote in a statement on Facebook on Monday.
Tensions were also high following a bomb blast on Sunday in the normally peaceful eastern city of Kharkiv. In their latest toll, authorities said that three people had died in the "terrorist" attack.
Ukraine's currency, the hryvnia, plummeted some 10pc yesterday because of the instability.
The West has warned of additional sanctions on Russia should the shaky truce deteriorate further, especially after rebels captured the strategic town of Debaltseve last week in defiance of the ceasefire.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is tasked with monitoring the truce, "concludes that the ceasefire is not holding in critical, strategic points" including near Mariupol and in Debaltseve, Alexander Hug, the deputy head of the OSCE mission, told France 24 television.
Colonel Valentyn Fedichev, a Ukrainian military commander, said that, while the number of attacks had generally decreased across the conflict zone, troop positions had still been fired upon 27 times since Sunday. Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 10 wounded, he said.
Insurgent fighters "have not halted attempts to assault our positions in the town of Shyrokine and the Mariupol area," Col Fedichev said. Other defence officials said the rebels fired mortars into Shyrokine, which neighbours Mariupol, in an apparent attempt to provoke Ukrainian troops into firing back in violation of the ceasefire.
Kiev has alleged Russia sent 20 tanks towards Mariupol, a port city of half a million residents on the Azov Sea coast, and that two tank attacks have occurred there so far. (© Daily Telegraph, London)