The Ukrainian government and separatist rebels agreed to a ceasefire amid flickering hopes of peace, but also widespread fear that the blood-letting cannot be stopped for long.
The guns on the most violent frontline, Mariupol, fell silent 28 minutes before the truce was due to begin at 6pm local time, after a final sustained barrage.
Fierce attacks and the destruction of several government checkpoints led to expectations the separatists intended a last-minute dash to seize the port, giving their Russian sponsors control of the Azov Sea coastline. That did not take place and, although confrontations continued, there were no reports of breaches, apart from some shelling on the outskirts of Donetsk which soon subsided.
But the feeling that the agreement will fall apart appeared to be prevalent in much of the international community. Barack Obama, urging European allies to back new sanctions, said: “With respect to the ceasefire agreement, obviously we are hopeful but based on past experience also sceptical that the separatists will follow through and the Russians will stop violating Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
The deal took place in a hotel at the Belarus capital, Minsk, with the former Ukrainian President, Leonid Kuchma, holding talks with leaders of two “peoples’ republics”, Alexander Zakharenko of Donetsk and Igor Polotinsky of Luhansk, in the presence of officials from Russia and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The agreement is said to be based on plans put forward by Vladimir Putin which were initially dismissed by the Ukrainian government and some of its Western backers. The Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused the Russian President of deceit and attempting to avoid sanctions while continuing to “send mercenaries and terrorists” to destabilise the east of the country.
However, the injection of fresh forces and weapons from Russia’s army dramatically reversed recent gains made by Kiev, forcing the retreat of Ukrainian troops from a number of fronts and driving the Ukrainian government to the negotiating table.
Under the plan, Ukrainians would move artillery away from populated areas and freeze the status quo while talks begin on a permanent settlement. Meanwhile, humanitarian aid will be sent to the east and prisoner exchanges will begin.
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
The two sides remain far apart and the rebels, empowered by their success, announced immediately after the Minsk agreement that it was the precursor to the break-up of Ukraine. Mr Polotinsky, of Luhansk, stated: “We intend to continue our policy of detachment.”
The recriminations and distrust are particularly acute in Mariupol which has seen violent clashes between polarised belligerents. On the eastern edges of the city, Ukrainian paramilitaries were taking bets on how long it would be before the “Russians started firing again on us”. Dr Vitaly shook his head: “The last two dead bodies I had to deal with were two children, a six-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy, from Libidinskaya village. This is what killed them,” he held up a jagged piece of shrapnel from what appeared to be an artillery round. “There were no [Ukrainian] checkpoints there they could use as an excuse. I don’t think the separatists did this; it was the Russians, they commit these crimes to keep the violence going”
Dr Vitaly belongs to the Azov battalion, one of the many private armies which have been raised, mainly through oligarch funding, to combat the separatists. It had attracted extreme right wingers, some of whom display Nazi emblems, and its deputy leader, Oleg Odnorozhenko, is a white supremacist.
Mariupol is also part of an industrial zone with many of the steel workers and coal workers holding strong socialist and communist views. “This is a part of the country which suffered a lot from the Nazis. Now you have people from the west [of Ukraine] who have come here, supposedly to defend us, who are fascists. Whose side do you think we should be on?” asked Nicolai Borosinov, a supervisor at a steel works. “But, of course, as soon as we say we want more autonomy from a corrupt government in Kiev, we are accused of being agents of Mr Putin. This thing we have here is complex: it goes back generations. This agreement in Minsk, it’s just sticking plaster.”Reuse content