VILNIUS, Lithuania — NATO's top general said Saturday the two-week-old truce between Ukraine and pro-Russian militants fighting in the country's east is a "cease-fire in name only," and he said that by enabling a free flow of weapons and fighters across the border Russia has made it nearly impossible to determine how many of its troops are operating inside Ukraine.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told a news conference after meeting with NATO military chiefs that he is hopeful about Saturday's announced agreement for creation of a buffer zone between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces.
The deal reached by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the Moscow-backed rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe marks an effort to add substance to the Sept. 5 cease-fire agreement that has been frequently broken by clashes.
Breedlove has put the main blame on Russia for the continuing conflict.
"So the situation in Ukraine is not good right now," he said. "Basically we have a cease-fire in name only."
Breedlove said violence levels in Ukraine, including the number of artillery rounds fired in the past few days, are as high as prior to the cease-fire.
Asked about prospects for an acceptable end Sunday to the prolonged stalemate in Kabul over Afghanistan's presidential election, Breedlove sounded an optimistic note, saying NATO officials have spoken with both candidates, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister and World Bank official Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.
"We believe they are very, very close to forming that unity government (which) we think is very important," Breedlove said.
He said both Abdullah and Ghani Ahmadzai have promised a "quick signature" to a U.S.-Afghan security agreement that would provide the basis for nearly 10,000 American troops to remain in the country after the U.S. and NATO combat missions end in December. The current president, Hamid Karzai, negotiated the deal last year but refused to sign it.
"I wouldn't want to speculate on how fast, but we're hoping for very fast signatures," Breedlove said, because it would open the way not only for U.S. troops to remain but also for NATO to begin a training mission dubbed Resolute Support starting in January.
In his remarks about Ukraine, Breedlove said Russian forces are still operating inside eastern Ukraine but numbers cannot be pinpointed.
"Right now the border is being maintained open by Russian forces and Russian-backed forces, and the fluidity of movement of Russian forces and Russian-backed forces back and forth across that border makes it almost impossible to understand the numbers," he said.
He said it is clear that the number of Russian troops in Ukraine has declined significantly over the past week or so, with some returning to the Russian side of the border — "which is good, except that they haven't returned home and are still available to bring their military force to bear on Ukraine, should it be desired" by Russian government leaders.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a member of NATO, but both share borders with NATO-member countries. Recent Russian military behavior, including its annexation of the Crimea Peninsula of southern Ukraine earlier this year, is a major worry inside the U.S.-led alliance.
Breedlove said the Vilnius meeting discussed the proposed creation of a new rapid reaction corps that could deploy several thousand allied combat troops on short notice anywhere in eastern Europe. The plan, announced in its broad outlines at a NATO summit meeting earlier this month in Wales, is part of the West's response to Russia's recent moves against Ukraine. Basic details, however, such as how troop contributions to the force would be shared by individual NATO member countries have yet to be worked out.
The U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, and the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Campbell, attended the Vilnius meeting but did not participate in the closing news conference Saturday.
Follow Robert Burns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP