Ukraine crisis: Fighting fizzles out as ceasefire agreed – but for how long?

Amid a mood of recrimination and mistrust on the ground, the prevalent feeling is the agreement will soon fall apart

Kim Sengupta
Friday 05 September 2014 23:32
The Ukrainian government and separatist rebels agreed to a ceasefire amid flickering hopes of peace
The Ukrainian government and separatist rebels agreed to a ceasefire amid flickering hopes of peace

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.

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.”

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