Ukraine conflict: Russia's Vladimir Putin says war 'unlikely'

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionPresident Putin: "I believe that such an apocalyptic scenario is hardly possible"

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said war with neighbouring Ukraine is "unlikely", in an interview for Russian television.

Mr Putin also stressed his support for the recent Minsk ceasefire deal as the best way to stabilise eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine says Russian troops have been fighting in Ukraine. Mr Putin repeated denials that this was the case.

Foreign ministers from Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany are meeting in Paris on Tuesday to discuss the ceasefire.

On Monday, Ukraine's military said rebel shelling had prevented them from withdrawing heavy weapons from the front line.

Ukraine accused the rebels of using artillery fire around the towns of Donetsk and Debaltseve.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) also said fighting has continued since the ceasefire.

A statement from the mission said a rebel commander at a checkpoint in Donetsk had threatened to kill a monitoring team on Sunday.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The town of Donetsk is a hub for the pro-Russian separatists

In his interview - his first extended comments since the ceasefire deal was agreed on 12 February - Mr Putin was asked if there was a real threat of war, given the situation in eastern Ukraine.

"I think that such an apocalyptic scenario is unlikely and I hope this will never happen," he said.

Mr Putin said that if the Minsk agreement was implemented, eastern Ukraine would "gradually stabilise".

"Europe is just as interested in that as Russia. No one wants conflict on the edge of Europe, especially armed conflict," he said.

Analysis: Sarah Rainsford, BBC News, Moscow

This was a confident Vladimir Putin, fielding soft questions on the Ukraine conflict with ease, even smiles. Russia's president said that in his eyes, the way to peace in Ukraine is clear - the deal struck in Minsk has to be implemented.

He underlined that the agreement had been backed by the UN Security Council - and that matters to Moscow. He was also keen to point out that it devolves more power to eastern parts of Ukraine, currently controlled by Russian-backed rebels.

As for Russia invading Ukraine, President Putin once again shrugged off evidence that he's deployed troops to help the rebels. He said Kiev was claiming that to hide its humiliation at being defeated by former miners and tractor drivers.

He was just as scathing on the issue of Crimea, which Russia annexed last year, advising Ukraine's president to concentrate on saving his country's collapsing economy, instead of vowing to take back that land.

The Russian leader also said the Minsk deal had become an "international legal document" following UN Security Council approval of a Russian-drafted resolution endorsing it.

Last week the deal looked in danger of collapsing when rebels captured the strategically important transport hub of Debaltseve.

Both sides have two weeks under the terms of the Minsk deal to pull artillery and tanks out of striking distance, and both agreed at the weekend to begin withdrawing heavy weapons shortly.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Both sides have pledged to start withdrawing heavy weapons
Image copyright AP
Image caption There was bitter fighting in Debaltseve ahead of a Ukrainian withdrawal

But on Monday, the Ukrainian military said rebels had not stopped firing and that it was therefore unable to withdraw heavy weapons.

The rebels, however, were not expected to begin their pullback until after Russia's Defenders of the Fatherland Day, that they were observing on Monday.

The BBC's Paul Adams reports from the self-declared People's Republic of Donetsk that rebels there said they were experiencing less intense fighting than before, with less use of heavy weapons by the Ukrainian army.

But he adds that soldiers and an appreciative crowd were in defiant mood as they listened to a little girl deliver a rousing speech to mark the holiday, calling down God's judgement on the government in Kiev.

Minsk agreement: Key points

  • Ceasefire from 00:01 on 15 February (22:01 GMT 14 February)
  • Heavy weapons to be withdrawn within two weeks
  • All prisoners to be released; amnesty for fighters
  • Withdrawal of all foreign troops and weapons from Ukrainian territory, disarmament of all illegal groups
  • Lifting of government restrictions on rebel-held areas
  • Constitutional reform to enable decentralisation for rebel regions by the end of 2015
  • Ukraine to control border with Russia if conditions met by the end of 2015

Fighting began in eastern Ukraine in April, a month after Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula.

Nearly 5,700 people have died and at least 1.25 million have fled their homes since the conflict began early last year.

The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and Nato say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the rebels with heavy weapons and soldiers.

Independent experts echo that accusation while Moscow denies it, insisting that any Russians serving with the rebels are "volunteers".