Ukrainian servicemen from the Azov Battalion train volunteers on Sept. 1, 2014 in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. / AFP/Getty Images
Russia and Ukraine said Wednesday they were moving toward a cease-fire to halt months of bloody fighting, as President Obama condemned Moscow's aggression and pledged that NATO will protect allies who fear they could become Russia's next target.
In Washington, the Pentagon said 200 U.S. troops will participate in exercises in western Ukraine starting next week. The annual exercise brings the first U.S. ground troops into the country since Russia took control of Crimea earlier this year and clashed with Ukrainian forces.
Obama's tough remarks came as he and other NATO leaders prepared to meet Thursday in Wales to deal with the crisis that has threatened a return to Cold War-era tensions.
Speaking in Estonia, Obama declared "this is a moment of testing" for the West to stand up to the Kremlin.
Obama blasted what he called Russia's "brazen assault on the sovereign territory of Ukraine.' '' He said Russia "challenges that most basic principle that borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun."
"We will defend the territorial integrity of every single ally,'' he said.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin and agreed on steps for a cease-fire, the Ukrainian leader's office announced Wednesday.
Putin, speaking during a quick trip to Mongolia, outlined what he said was a seven-point plan for peace in eastern Ukraine and said a deal could be final as early as Friday.
He said the rebels should halt their offensive against Ukraine, and Ukrainian government forces should pull back to a distance that would make it impossible for them to use artillery and rockets against residential areas. Putin also urged international monitoring of a cease-fire, a prisoners exchange and humanitarian aid.
Still, Western countries were ratcheting up the pressure on the Kremlin ahead of the NATO meeting in Wales. France said it was delaying the delivery to Russia of the first of two French Mistral navy assault ships. The French-built Vladivostok, the first of two helicopter carriers, was scheduled to be delivered to Russia by late October.
The office of French President Francois Hollande blamed the delay on Moscow's moves in Ukraine.
"Russia's recent actions run against the foundations of security in Europe," Hollande's office said in a statement.
"The president of the (French) republic has concluded that despite the prospect of cease-fire, which has yet to be confirmed and put in place, the conditions under which France could authorize the delivery of the first helicopter carrier are not in place," the statement said.
The 28-nation NATO summit will be dominated by new moves to bolster Ukraine's security and at a time of tightening sanctions by the European Union and the United States over Russia's military involvement in Ukraine.
Ukraine is not a NATO member, and the U.S. and European allies are not obligated to defend it. Poroshenko has said he wants to join the alliance. Russia has long seethed as NATO expanded its membership to include former republics of the old Soviet Union.
Poroshenko voiced hope that Friday's talks in the Belarus capital of Minsk would allow both sides to "take real steps to achieve peace."
Putin's comments followed different accounts by Kiev and Moscow on the phone call between the two heads of state, with Poroshenko saying a permanent cease-fire deal had been reached and Russia saying only the outlines of an agreement were discussed.
Initially, Poroshenko said flatly on Twitter, "As a result of my telephone conversation with Russian President we reached an agreement on a permanent cease-fire on Donbass.'"
Donbass refers to the industrialized region of eastern Ukraine that has been the main battlefield in the months-long fight between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russian rebels that has left more than 2,600 people dead. It includes the main cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been rebel strongholds.
A subsequent statement released by Poroshenko's office said "mutual understanding was reached regarding the steps that will contribute to the establishment of peace."
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov later confirmed that the two leaders did discuss steps on the possible basis for a cease-fire but said "Russia cannot physically agree on a cease-fire because it isn't a party in the conflict."
Contributing: The Associated Press
Copyright 2014USA TODAY
Read the original story: Ukraine, Russia looking for way to end fighting