Donetsk's rebel leader vows 'there will be no more ceasefire agreements'

Alexander Zakharchenko says there will be 'no more weakness'. Meanwhile, the people of Donetsk are hungry, writes Oliver Carroll

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The Independent Online

A former mine engineer, the head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, has admitted to feeling shy in front of large audiences.

But though he may still mumble, he was strident yesterday as he gave a speech at Donetsk National University vowing a renewed push by the rebel forces, which this week saw them take control of Donetsk airport.

“There will be no more ceasefire agreements,” he told the few hundred students gathered in the physics department. 

These were the students who had rejected the Ukrainian government’s offer to relocate to a new university in Vinnitsa, central Ukraine. “Our friends and family are here – what kind of choice did they think we had?” said 19-year-old mathematics student Nastya.

Much of Zakharchenko’s speech to the students yesterday was straight out of the book of his mentor, Vladimir Putin: uncompromising, harsh, but also tinged with military banter and self-deprecation. By the end of the performance, Mr Zakharchenko was offering the students advice on love, studying and the use of a Kalashnikov. He invited two female students to accompany him to see the ruins of Donetsk’s airport.

 

But Mr Zakharchenko’s main purpose was to lay clear the uncompromising direction of the rebels.

“Our kindness has been taken for weakness,” he said. “There will be no more ceasefire agreements and no more rotations of Ukrainian troops through our checkpoints.”

The troop rotations, which had appeared peculiar to many observers, were, he said, an obligation that they had taken on as part of the Minsk agreements. In future, the only part of the agreement he would be sticking to was prisoner exchanges, he added.

As news filtered through the crowd that a Ukrainian checkpoint in Krasny partisan to the north of Donetsk had fallen to rebel hands, it seemed developments were living up to Mr Zakharchenko’s words.

Although Friday was largely quiet in the centre of Donetsk, Julia, a resident of Ukrainian-held Kramatorsk, some 35 miles further up the road, said a certain level of panic had set in among residents. “We’re hearing all kinds of rumours that rebel forces are on their way to us,” she said.

There is logic behind the rebel push. The economy in the rebel-held areas is at breaking point. Small and medium-sized businesses have largely deserted the area, and Kiev has restricted travel and financial flows into the region. The region’s port, Mariupol, is still held by Ukraine and without that and access to the major infrastructure of the wider Donetsk region, it is hard to see how the Donetsk People’s Republic could ever be viable. And people are hungry.

Mr Zakharchenko made reference to the difficulties in his address to students. Rebel forces were, he said, focused on retaking Slavyansk, to the north of Donetsk. Slavyansk is a source of fresh water for many of the cities immediately outside the zone controlled by Russian-backed rebels, including Mariupol. “First we’ll take Slavyansk, and then we’ll move on to Mariupol,” he told the students.

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Zakharchenko said: 'Our kindness has been taken for weakness' (AFP/Getty Images)

There is also radicalisation on both sides. Donetsk is transformed from a year ago, when 66 per cent of the city expressed a desire to stay part of Ukraine. Many of its young, mobile and pro-Ukrainian people have fled. Those remaining have witnessed a military push, destruction and despair that they largely attribute – rightly or wrongly – to government forces.

On the other side, October’s parliamentary elections in Ukraine returned parties with populist agendas. Political rivalries between leading politicians have upped the rhetoric, and arguably gave President Petro Poroshenko less room for manoeuvre.

Diplomatic efforts continue. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said yesterday he was ready to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov next month in Munich. In an interview with Reuters, Stoltenberg described a “substantial increase in Russian heavy equipment” in Ukraine.

Over the first 20, very dark days of January, the Donetsk city morgue registered 116 victims of the conflict, not including victims of Thursday’s trolleybus shelling. The UN yesterday reported that more than 5,000 civilians have died as a consequence of the fighting, including 262 in the past nine days. Many assume the number to be higher. “We will only know the exact numbers of dead after the war, and after many independent investigations,” said Enrique Menedes, a local businessman turned humanitarian worker.

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