News Column

Ukraine-Russian Cease-Fire Already Unraveling

September 3, 2014

Shaun Walker and Alec Luhn, theguardian.com

Vladimir Putin chalks up a piece of pipeline (Associated Press)
Vladimir Putin chalks up a piece of pipeline (Associated Press)

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, issued his own seven-point peace plan for eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, calling on the Russian-backed insurgents there to "stop advancing" and urging Ukraine to withdraw its troops from the region.

Hours earlier a "permanent ceasefire" apparently agreed between Ukraine and Russia appeared to unravel before it had started on Wednesday, as the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, backtracked from the word "permanent" and the Russian president said the pair had only discussed a "ceasefire regime" that he hoped might be in place by the end of the week.

The surprise announcement came after Putin and Poroshenko spoke on the telephone on Wednesday morning. Poroshenko wrote on Twitter: "As a result of my telephone conversation with the Russian president we reached an agreement on a permanent ceasefire on Donbass."

While the tweet remained, the statement on Poroshenko's website was quietly amended to remove the word "permanent". Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Russian agencies that the two leaders had not agreed on a ceasefire, as Russia was not party to the fighting, but had "discussed how to end the conflict".

Later, speaking to reporters on a day trip to Ulaanbaatar, Putin said he had drafted a handwritten seven-point plan for an end to hostilities in eastern Ukraine while on his flight to the Mongolian capital. He said he hoped that a deal would finally be reached on Friday, when both sides are expected to meet in Minsk.

Putin's plan would involve Ukrainian armed forces and pro-government "self-defence forces" pulling back, suspending air strikes, "the exchange of persons kept in captivity" and the opening of humanitarian corridors.

According to a report by Russia's state TV channel Russia Today, Putin said he hoped Ukraine would take an active role in the talks on Friday, towards "a final and comprehensive settlement of the situation in the south-eastern Ukraine, of course, with full and unconditional assurance of the legitimate rights of the people who live there".

Earlier, one adviser to a top Ukrainian official told the Guardian that the announcement had been "a brainfart" and that "nobody believes in it". There were reports of continuing fighting around the city of Donetsk as the supposed ceasefire was nowhere to be seen on the ground.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, called Russia a "terrorist state" and said Kiev would build a wall along the border between the two countries. He also said he hoped Ukraine would join Nato in the near future, before a summit of the alliance due to start in Wales on Thursday.

Arriving in Estonia on a trip intended to show solidarity with Nato allies before the summit, Barack Obama was cautious about the ceasefire news.

"We haven't seen a lot of follow-up on so-called announced ceasefires," the US president said. "Having said that, if in fact Russia is prepared to stop financing, arming, training, in many cases joining, with Russian troops, activities in Ukraine and is serious about a political settlement, that is something we all hope for."

The potential ceasefire comes after a series of crushing defeats for Ukraine's forces in the east of the country, which Kiev says is down to the introduction of regular Russian troops in the region. Previously, government forces had been making progress against the rebels and had pushed them back into the strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, but in the past two weeks the Ukrainians have suffered setbacks.

In the town of Ilovaysk, the army suffered heavy casualties as soldiers and volunteers attempted to retreat from the town after it was encircled by rebel forces backed, say Ukrainians, by Russian soldiers.

The exact number of dead is unclear but is believed to be more than 100, and hundreds were also captured. Kiev has also lost control of Luhansk airport, which it had held for months, and the rebels have been advancing south from Donetsk towards the strategic port city of Mariupol.

Putin has called for a ceasefire repeatedly, whereas Kiev was keen to win militarily before finding a political solution. However, the apparent injection of Russian firepower has proved too much for Kiev's forces.

In Donetsk, rebel leaders said they would not abide by any ceasefire until there were no Ukrainian troops in the territory. Earlier this week at negotiations in Minsk, a rebel spokesman said the region could stay in Ukraine if certain conditions were met, while other leaders have said only full independence from Kiev would do. Reuters reported loud artillery explosions on the outskirts of Donetsk during the day on Wednesday, with clouds of smoke rising from near the city's airport.

Rebels stationed in the small town of Guselshchikove said they had heard about the announced ceasefire and were waiting to see what the Ukrainian forces would do.

"We are for peace," said the local commander, who would identify himself only as Sergei. "We're just defending our land."

"It doesn't depend on us, but on Poroshenko," said another rebel, who gave his nom de guerre as "the Rook". He said Ukrainian forces would have to withdraw from the borders of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, including Mariupol, before there could be peace.

Although the rebels said they were local, they did not speak with local accents. Their kit looked new and included two modern Dragunov sniper rifles and two rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

In another sign of pro-Russia forces' steady advance from the north towards Mariupol, rebels were in control of the key road junction of Telmanove on Tuesday, seized in the previous 24 hours. Unmarked men with machine guns were moving about the town and had stacked a few tyres to create an impromptu checkpoint on the western approach to the city.

Analysts have suggested that the Kremlin may want to establish some kind of quasi-autonomous state in east Ukraine with only nominal control from Kiev, in order to hold leverage over the pro-European government in Kiev.

More than 2,000 people have died in the conflict in east Ukraine since it began earlier this year with Russian-backed groups seizing administrative buildings in eastern cities shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Kiev says the uprising was directed from Moscow all along, though it has used genuine local grievances about rule from Kiev and the new government, which replaced President Viktor Yanukovych after the Maidan revolution in February.

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Original headline: Putin proposes peace plan as Russian-Ukrainian 'ceasefire' begins to unravel

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CORRECTION: Astute reader Rod Pearce points out that what we had thought was a "piece of ordnance" is a section of pipeline (see Comments, below). Also, we had misspelled his first name.


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Source: (c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.


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