KIEV, Ukraine — Russia and Ukraine said Wednesday they are working on a deal to halt months of fighting in eastern Ukraine, an announcement that threatened to upstage a crucial NATO summit on the crisis that has chilled East-West relations.
Western leaders expressed some skepticism over the plan, noting that it isn't the first attempt to establish a truce and earlier efforts had failed.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office said after a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin that the two leaders have agreed on steps for a cease-fire.
In a televised statement, Putin spelled out a seven-point plan for ending hostilities in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists scored significant gains last week against government forces after four months of fighting.
Putin, speaking on a visit to Mongolia, said the rebels should halt their offensive and the Ukrainian government forces should pull back to a distance that would make the use of artillery and rockets against residential areas impossible. He also urged international monitoring of a cease-fire, a prisoners exchange and the delivery of humanitarian aid to war-ravaged regions.
Representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could finalize the peace deal as early as Friday, Putin said.
Poroshenko also voiced hope that Friday's talks in Belarus' capital of Minsk would allow both sides to "take real steps to achieve peace."
He discussed the plan with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying it should include the OSCE monitoring of a cease-fire, the withdrawal of foreign troops, a buffer zone on the border and the release of all Ukrainian prisoners held in Russia, according to his office.
The Ukrainian leader met with Putin in Minsk last week, but they didn't announce any agreement after that session.
Ukrainian officials said the bodies of 87 soldiers had been retrieved from the area near Ilovaysk, the scene of a horrific government defeat over the weekend. Ukraine and the West said the rebel offensive was spearheaded by regular Russian army units — an allegation Moscow has rejected.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday dismissed the Kremlin denials, saying "Russian combat forces with Russian weapons in Russian tanks" were in eastern Ukraine.
On a trip to Estonia to reassure allies along Russia's border, Obama said it was too early to say if the announced truce could hold, noting that "we haven't seen a lot of follow-up on so-called announced cease-fires."
Obama left Estonia for Wales, where he and other Western leaders will attend a NATO summit that starts today. The alliance is expected to approve plans to station more troops and equipment in Eastern Europe, with the aim of building a rapid response force that could deploy within 48 hours.
Even if the cease-fire holds, negotiating a lasting peace in the east will be a daunting challenge in the conflict, which the U.N. estimates has killed nearly 2,600 people and forced more than 340,000 to flee their homes.
Rebels have dropped a demand for full independence, saying they are ready to discuss remaining part of Ukraine in exchange for broad autonomy in the mostly Russian-speaking regions in the east — a stance that reflects Putin's desire to maintain leverage over its neighbor and prevent it from ever joining NATO.