Friday, September 5, 2014

Ukraine: Truce With Pro-Russian Rebels Reached

he Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine agreed Friday to a temporary cease-fire, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said, raising the prospect of at least a brief respite in an increasingly bloody conflict.  At a NATO summit in Wales, President Obama welcomed the announcement while expressing skepticism that the separatists and their Russian backers would adhere to the truce and other commitments. He attributed the cease-fire to pressure brought to bear on Russia by U.S. and Western sanctions and the threat of further penalties.
After several hours of talks aimed at ending the fighting, a team of negotiators in Minsk, Belarus, agreed that both sides would stop firing at 6:00 p.m. local time, or 11:00 a.m. in Washington. Poroshenko said he would work with international monitors to ensure that the terms of the cease-fire were observed. Details of other terms in the agreement were not immediately clear, and envoys from Ukraine, Russia, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) returned to a closed-door conference room after briefly emerging to announce the cease-fire. An OSCE representative said the agreement contains 12 points, of which the cease-fire was one.
“The highest value is human life, and we must do everything possible to stop the bloodshed and put an end to suffering,” Poroshenko said in a statement posted on his Web site. He first announced the cease-fire on Twitter, using language that suggested a tenuous deal. “In Minsk a preliminary protocol was signed for an agreement on a cease-fire,” Poroshenko wrote. “This protocol is to take effect on Friday.” He referred to talks that began Friday in the capital of Belarus on ending the nearly five-month-old conflict, which has destabilized Ukraine and raised tensions between Russia and the West to Cold War-era highs.
“I have given orders to the chief of my military to declare a cease-fire,” Poroshenko said later at a news conference. The announcement came as heavy shelling rocked the outskirts of a key Ukrainian port city Friday. Witnesses reported shelling north and east of Mariupol, a strategic city of about half a million people that lies on the Sea of Azov between Russia to the east and the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula to the west. Residents said insurgents were firing toward the west from the village of Bezimenne. Seven civilians have died in the shelling so far, including two children, Konstantin Batozsky, deputy governor of the Donetsk region, said on his Facebook page.
Rebel leaders at the talks in Minsk said that they had issued orders for a cease-fire. But they said they had not abandoned aspirations to establish a new, independent state separate from Ukraine, a demand that could constrain the durability of any respite in hostilities. “This does not mean that the path for separation will change somehow,” a rebel leader, Igor Plotnitsky, told reporters in Minsk, in remarks that were broadcast on Russian state television. The cease-fire “is a forced measure in order to stop the bloodshed.” Even if Kiev ends up conceding greater autonomy to Ukraine’s breakaway territories, the rebels would settle for nothing less than full independence, said Alexander Gnezdilov, a former spokesman for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic
“It’s good negotiations are being done on the international level right now. That is crucial,” he said. “But DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] will agree only to the independence of its territories. Common people are for the cease-fire, but it depends on what the two sides will agree. Personally, I am always eager for dialogue. Right now, to come up with an agreement, both sides need to understand the governmental system is not working in proper way. Right now the Ukrainian side cannot fully control Donetsk territory; at the same time DPR can’t create a functional government. So neither side is controlling the situation.”
The measures appeared, at least initially, to be a first step toward a peace plan envisioned by Russian President Vladimir Putin that would effectively freeze the conflict in a manner similar to other long-running territorial disputes in former Soviet republics. The Kremlin has used those other conflicts, in Moldova and Georgia, to exert pressure on their governments and to complicate their chances of joining the NATO defense alliance.
But any resolution that allows the rebels to solidify their territorial claims would be deeply unpopular among hard-liners in Kiev, who view the rebels as proxies for Russia that are controlled and supported by the Kremlin. NATO has said that several thousand Russian soldiers are in Ukrainian territory, a charge the Kremlin denies.
The Kremlin said Friday that it welcomes the moves toward a cease-fire. “Moscow hopes that all of the document’s provisions and that the agreements reached will be thoroughly observed by the parties and that the negotiating process will continue until the crisis in Ukraine is fully resolved,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Interfax news agency. Poroshenko, speaking near a sand trap on a golf course at the Welsh resort where NATO leaders gathered for their summit, said the cease-fire was part of a 12-step protocol for establishing lasting peace and that the agreement was based on a conversation he had with Putin earlier in the week.
Those steps include the release of hostages, which Poroshenko said would happen “most likely tomorrow,” as well as the devolution of power away from the central government and toward local authorities. Poroshenko promised that the eastern regions of Ukraine would have new sovereign powers to determine their own economic future and to use the Russian language. Those have been key demands of the separatists, although it appeared unlikely that the promises would be enough to assuage them. Russian analysts have said that the Kremlin wants eastern Ukraine to have enough political power that regional leaders would be able to veto any move by Ukraine to join NATO.
The Ukrainian president said he was satisfied that the deal respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Poroshenko took no questions from reporters. Western leaders expressed deep skepticism that the agreement would hold. European officials said they would press forward with sanctions against Russia on Friday, and they have expressed concern that Moscow is insincere about ending the conflict. On Thursday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he feared that the deal could be a “smokescreen” for another escalation. But following Poroshenko’s announcement, he was more measured.
“The next and crucial step is for it to be it implemented in good faith,” Rasmussen said. “It remains to be seen, but so far so good. I hope that this step could be the start of a constructive political process.” Offering a glimpse of divisions within the Ukrainian government, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Friday that any peace plan dictated by Putin would be unacceptable. What Ukraine needs, he said, is for all foreign troops to leave Ukrainian soil and for strong border defenses to be erected, Interfax reported. The seizure of Mariupol, which could provide a land corridor between Russia and Crimea, would give Russian-backed separatists a strong presence in the area.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian military, Col. Andriy Lysenko, told a briefing in Kiev on Friday that Russia was also massing troops in Crimea near the thin strip of land that connects it with mainland Ukraine, further heightening worries in Ukraine that much of Ukraine’s Sea of Azov coastline was under threat. The assertion could not immediately be confirmed. The increasingly bloody fighting has claimed the lives of 846 Ukrainian soldiers, Lysenko said, including seven in the last day. The latest fighting began around 2 p.m. Thursday, when six insurgent tanks and vehicles assaulted a Ukrainian checkpoint near the village of Shyrokyne about 14 miles east of Mariupol, soldiers on the ground said. The checkpoint was destroyed, and the Azov Battalion, Ukraine’s volunteer soldier brigade in Mariupol, fell back. 
Fighting and shelling in Shyrokyne continued throughout the night and into Friday morning, with dozens of casualties, the soldiers said. Mariupol has been fortifying and bracing for an attack on its eastern flank for a week, after Russian-backed insurgents took over the town of Novoazovsk, about eight miles from the Russian border. One eyewitness to Friday’s shelling, who lives in the tiny village of Bezimenne east of Mariupol, said insurgent forces had been firing artillery shells west toward Mariupol throughout the night and day. Most of the residents sought shelter in their basements, and there was nobody out in the streets, she said.
“I really, really hope that after 6 p.m. there will be a cease-fire,” said the Bezimenne resident, who gave her name only as Anna out of safety concerns. “We only have two days worth of food left in this basement, and my kids are very, very tired of these constant shootings.” Although the fighting has not yet reached Mariupol, residents were continuing to leave in droves, and volunteers set up mobile hospitals to treat the wounded. Hundreds of soldiers and volunteers have descended upon the city in recent days to prepare for its defense, and one volunteer soldier said Friday that few believed a cease-fire would take hold.
As expected, NATO leaders meeting in Wales formally approved the creation of a joint rapid-reaction force that could respond to military crises within two to six days — far faster than under current NATO arrangements. Rasmussen, the alliance’s outgoing secretary general, said most details about the makeup of the force and its home base would be determined later.
At the NATO summit in Newport, Wales, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Friday that Western nations would impose new sanctions against Russia over its involvement in Ukraine, but he said they could be lifted in the unlikely event that a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine takes hold, Reuters news agency reported. “There will be another step up of the pressure today when the [European Union] meets in Brussels to decide on the next round of sanctions,” Hammond told Sky News. “Our economies are fundamentally more robust and resilient than the Russian economy, and if Russia ends up in an economic war with the West, Russia will lose,” he added. Hammond told BBC television that if a cease-fire accord is signed and implemented, “we can then look at lifting sanctions.” But he said there was “a great degree of skepticism about whether this action will materialize, whether the cease-fire will be real.”
Friday’s apparent rebel offensive on Mariupol comes after two weeks of rebel gains in which the separatists turned the tide against Ukrainian forces that had appeared close to crushing the rebellion. As the peace talks started, Ukraine’s envoy to the discussions said his nation was prepared for an immediate cease-fire if a deal could be reached. “We have come here for peace,” former president Leonid Kuchma told reporters on his way into the meeting, Interfax reported. Despite Friday’s talks, many Ukrainians remain deeply pessimistic about the future and skeptical that the talks can end the conflict. Around the capital, Kiev, and in the war-torn east, Ukrainians interviewed Thursday said they were weary of the fighting, which has left more than 2,600 people dead, according to United Nations figures.
But they differed widely about whether they think Poroshenko, their new president, will be able to negotiate an end to the crisis, or whether Putin, accused of supplying the rebel force with troops and tanks, can be trusted now. The uncertainty was most keenly felt among the pro-democracy demonstrators who for months occupied Kiev’s Independence Square and in February ousted the country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Veterans of the “Maidan,” as the square is called, worried that any concessions to Moscow would pull them back into Russia’s authoritarian orbit and risk further violence. “We only partially achieved our goals. The system hasn’t been changed,” said Konstantin Ivanov, 31, a sound and light engineer. “People will be in the streets. There will definitely be another Maidan” protest.
Poroshenko spoke at the NATO summit in Wales on Thursday evening, saying he had “careful optimism” about the possibility of a peace deal Friday. Ukraine in recent weeks has stepped up its attempts to join the NATO alliance — a move strongly opposed by Russia. The Kremlin sees keeping Ukraine out of NATO as a central pillar of its own defense strategy.  “We have to be cautious in our assessment,” said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s secretary general. “If we are witnessing a genuine effort to find a political solution, I would welcome it.” Earlier in the day, Poroshenko and the rebel commanders set times for a Friday cease-fire, contingent on what happens at the talks.
Poroshenko and Putin had begun talking early Wednesday about a plan for peace, a development that surprised many in Kiev. Putin took the reins of the process early, saying he and Poroshenko had agreed to a seven-point plan that would at least temporarily freeze the conflict on the ground. He is insisting on a large-scale Ukrainian military pullback and the introduction of international monitors to ensure that fighting does not resume.
Many in Kiev said they were skeptical of Putin, after months of denials from Moscow that Russians were involved in aiding the rebel side with troops and superior firepower. A large-scale incursion by Russian armored vehicles and soldiers — documented in satellite photos released by NATO — helped turn the tide on the battlefield in favor of the rebels in recent days, Ukrainian and Western military officials have said.
A wounded soldier from the Aidar Battalion, a volunteer group of soldiers that includes former Maidan protesters, said he wanted peace but did not believe that it would be achieved anytime soon. He said he had just come to Kiev for treatment of a bullet wound he suffered in the battle for the town of Ilovaysk. A group of more than 200 men had been trapped behind rebel lines there for over a week, leaving dozens of casualties. “Out of 24 men in my unit, only eight remained living,” the soldier said. As is common practice, for security reasons, he gave only his nickname, Tank. “Yes, we want peace. And we would be crazy to continue to fight Russia,” he said. He said that his battalion would respect a cease-fire but that he did not expect one to hold.
“It will not end like this,” he said. “I will go and fight still.” Many in the country’s east who support a greater autonomy for the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk — where many people want closer ties with Russia — were supportive of Moscow’s involvement in the peace talks. “People don’t really care here who they will be living under. They don’t care if it’s going to be called Ukraine, Russia or Novorossiya,” said Sergei, an insurance company employee from Luhansk.
Sergei, who did not give his full name because he fears for his safety, used the czarist-era term, re-popularized by Putin, for a belt of territory that was once controlled by Imperial Russia and includes eastern Ukraine. The term translates as “New Russia.” He said he has grown to hate the Ukrainian armed forces after his home city was relentlessly shelled. “I used to be proud to be called a Ukrainian,” he said. “Now I’m not. I can’t be proud of the side that is shooting people.”
Ukraine’s political turmoil began in November when Yanu­kovych declined to sign a trade agreement that would have brought the country closer to Europe. After his ouster in February, Russia quickly moved to annex the Crimean Peninsula. Then fighting moved into eastern Ukraine. Just weeks ago Ukrainian forces had made gains against the rebels. But since early last week, the separatists have battled with renewed strength, after what the Ukrainian military said was a large-scale Russian incursion into southeastern Ukraine.
A U.N. report last week said that more than 1 million people had been displaced by the conflict, and many war-weary Ukrainians said they would be willing to support a plan that might ultimately partition their country just to see an end to the bloodshed.