Russian-backed rebels launched a deadly last-minute effort to seize more Ukrainian territory yesterday, including a strategic railway hub, before a ceasefire is meant to take effect at midnight Ukraine time tonight.
With a day left before the guns are meant to fall silent in Ukraine’s battle-ravaged eastern regions, there was a fierce surge in fighting as a land grab and continued shelling left at least 25 people dead.
The government-held railway town of Debaltseve, where Ukrainian troops are almost encircled, was on the receiving end of dozens of artillery and rocket salvos in the 24-hour period following the Minsk talks. All but a few thousand civilians have fled to areas away from the front.
The sole remaining major road linking the town to government-held territory appeared to have been cut with the apparent capture of the village of Lohvynove, which lies on the road just north of Debaltseve.
The Ukrainian National Guard unit engaged in battles around Lohvynove said that captured combatants had confirmed Russian troops were actively involved in the fighting. Elsewhere, by the Azov Sea in the south-east, Ukrainian government troops say they clawed back a handful of villages. Troops have denied reporters access to the areas at the centre of operations.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
Separatist authorities said that government shelling killed three civilians and wounded five more in the rebel bastion, Luhansk.
The onslaught by both sides led diplomats to question why there was a grace period of more than 48 hours between Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine signing the peace accord in Minsk on Thursday morning and its implementation just after 10pm GMT tonight.
The upsurge in violence added to scepticism in some European capitals, where leaders are wary of raising expectations given that a previous peace deal, also signed in Minsk, unravelled months after it was signed.
“We are cautious, we need to learn the lessons of the last year – after all this is Minsk 2,” said one diplomat, adding: “An agreement has been signed, a ceasefire is coming into play. One would hope that people could respect the agreement from the point at which it was signed.”
The head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which will monitor the ceasefire, said he hoped the fighting would calm. “We would really hope to see a decrease already,” said Lamberto Zannier.
Ukrainian officials warned on Thursday night, even as the ink was drying on the Minsk agreement, that a further 50 tanks, 40 missile launchers and 40 armoured vehicles had entered the country across the border from Russia – claims the Kremlin has denied.
The Russian economy has already been battered by EU and US sanctions first imposed after Moscow annexed Crimea last March. If the Minsk talks had failed, EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday may have considered wider sanctions against Russia.
Given the apparent success of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande’s last-ditch diplomatic effort with Mr Putin and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, deeper sanctions remained off the table. The EU did, however, agree push ahead with previously-agreed sanctions on 19 Russian and Ukrainian individuals and nine companies, and warned that more could follow without a resolution.
“We hold open the possibility, if these new agreements are not implemented, that we must take further measures,” said Ms Merkel.
EU leaders will be carefully watching each stage of the process. A senior official said: “What really matters at the end of the day is the ceasefire – whether there is fighting, whether people in Ukraine are dying or not.”Reuse content