BRUSSELS - NATO's top commander warned on Wednesday there was little chance that Russia would meet a year-end deadline for a peace deal in eastern Ukraine, saying the calmer situation there did not mean the end of the conflict was near.
Spelling out what many Western officials believe, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove said Russia continued to support separatists in the area and that the ebb and flow in violence was Russia's way of demonstrating its power.
"Russia still supports its proxies in eastern Ukraine," Breedlove told a news conference. "It is not very likely that we can get everything we need in Minsk by the end of the year," he said, referring to the 12-point peace deal signed in the Belarus capital in February.
Russia denies it has provided weapons to the rebels or that it has troops engaged in the conflict that has killed more than 8,000 people since it April 2014, following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.
Breedlove, who also heads the U.S. European Command, said Western intelligence indicated otherwise.
"Russia is completely in control of what is happening on the line of contact and they will use that in the future," he said.
"We have seen multiple convoys into the Donbass, they have all been labelled as humanitarian support. We all know that is not correct," he added. The Donbass is the commonly used name for industrial regions of eastern Ukraine now under rebel control.
After a period of relative calm, both rebels and the Ukrainians have complained of more violations of the ceasefire negotiated as part of the Minsk deal. Both say heavy artillery that was meant to have been withdrawn is still being used.
The leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia negotiated the Minsk peace deal in February and the West has tied its implementation to any loosening of economic sanctions on Russia. The deal expires on Dec. 31 but France's President Francois Hollande has signalled it could be prolonged, while sanctions on Russia are also likely to be continued.
Speaking on Wednesday at NATO headquarters, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to act: "If Moscow wants relief from sanctions ... it is there for the getting."
"Implement Minsk and this can be achieved," he told a separate news conference following a meeting of NATO foreign ministers who discussed the Ukraine crisis.
Breedlove and Kerry said end-of-year targets set under the Minsk agreement included restoration of Ukrainian control on its eastern border, removal of all non-Ukrainian state forces from the region and release of hostages.