Ukraine conflict: Russia’s Vladimir Putin says war ‘unlikely’

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 withdrawing heavy weapons from the front line.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.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.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.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”.