Urgent attempts to stop the fragile ceasefire in Ukraine from shattering have continued amid continuing uncertainty over a key plank of the peace deal.
The foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France met in Paris to review the situation on the ground since the accord was signed on 12 February in Minsk, Belarus, and to decide on possible confidence-building measures. Speaking in Moscow, Vladimir Putin declared that a war between Russia and Ukraine was “unlikely”. He denied, again, that Russian troops and arms were in use in Ukraine – a charge made repeatedly by the Kiev government and the West.
The Russian President stressed his backing for the Minsk agreement, pointing out that it was now an established “international legal document” following approval by the United Nations Security Council.
One reason for this emphasis on legal status, according to diplomats, is to prevent the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force. The Ukrainian leader, Petro Poroshenko, wants the force on the ground, but it has been rejected by the separatists and Moscow, who say it is not part of the deal.
Although there has been a marked downturn in hostilities since the separatists achieved their objective of capturing the town of Debaltseve, a strategic hub, the withdrawal of heavy weaponry stipulated under the deal has been mired in recriminations between the two sides.
While many residents fled Debaltseve, some stayed. They included Nina Shono, 80, one of eight people who sheltered in a basement through weeks of intense bombardment. “When we were bombed, we were praying and I was crossing myself, everything was collapsing. One explosion. The second explosion, the third. But we are still sitting here,” she told Reuters.
Ms Shono’s neighbour, Alexander Drozd, 65, said they had survived on bread and pickles. “During the heavy shelling we couldn’t stick our heads out from the basement,” he said. “We ran out of candles. We had no fuel for a generator.”
Eduard Basurin, a rebel commander in the Donetsk region, insisted that his fighters had already begun a large-scale pullback of artillery.
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
But the Ukrainian security spokesman, Colonel Andriy Lysenko, maintained that the rebels “are just regrouping their gangs and are relocating their weapons”.As for the government, he added: “As soon as there is a ceasefire for two days, that is the signal to start a withdrawal.”
Kiev claimed the separatists were still breaking the ceasefire by shelling the town of Popasna, near Luhansk, and attempting to storm a post in the village of Shyrokyne, near Mauripol. Michael Bociurkiw, an OSCE observer monitoring the ceasefire, refused to comment on the accusations until further information was provided by teams surveying the conflict sites.
Russia’s Sergei Lavrov said Paris talks were focused on implementation. “The most important thing is to ensure the ceasefire,” he said.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said all four countries “remain determined to continue action in this format and do the utmost to ensure” promises are kept.Reuse content