April 21, 2017

April ceasefire in Donbas: Opportunity for renewed Russian gains?

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The truce was broken almost immediately: Russia-backed separatists started firing on Ukrainian positions just hours after the ceasefire went into effect.

“Despite the declared truce, our forces have lost several [the exact number depends on the day] soldiers, several others have been wounded over the past day… Notwithstanding the casualties, the Ukrainian army has not returned fire.” This is how a typical daily press release put out by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense has read since April 1, when the armed forces declared a ceasefire (at 00:00 hours) in the conflict area of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region (Mil.gov.ua, April 12).

Thus, from April 11 to April 12, the Russian occupation forces and their local proxies fired at Ukrainian positions over 45 times, using various weapons, including heavy artillery prohibited by the Minsk agreements (Mediarnbo.org, April 12).

The Ukrainian army stopped firing on enemy positions by the order of President Petro Poroshenko, following the agreement on a full ceasefire reached during the meeting of the trilateral Contact Group in Minsk on March 29. According to Mr. Poroshenko, resolute actions were necessary to ensure the ceasefire, including a withdrawal of heavy weaponry and artillery (President.gov.ua, March 30).

Boris Gryzlov, Russia’s envoy to the Minsk Contact Group, stated that, during the talks, the sides agreed on the inevitability of the Minsk agreements and pledged to respect the ceasefire (Rbc.ua, March 29). Russia’s clientele in Donbas also confirmed their preparedness to stick to the brokered deal. “We are ready to fulfill our obligations,” said Eduard Basurin, the deputy head of operational command of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), while speaking to journalists (Rian.com.ua, March 30).

However, the truce was broken almost immediately: Russia-backed separatists started firing on Ukrainian positions just hours after the ceasefire went into effect. “Every time such a truce has been arranged, we are redoubling our vigilance, since we do not trust them. As you can see, it has been confirmed today,” commented a Ukrainian fighter nicknamed “Dock” (Fakty.ictv.ua, April 1).

A full ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the line of contact in Donbas were the keystones of the agreement signed by Kyiv and the Moscow-controlled separatist authorities, in Minsk, back in February 2015. However, since then, all armistices have been regularly violated. As long as part of the Ukrainian-Russian border remains beyond Kyiv’s control, Moscow can easily reinforce the Donbas separatists with fresh soldiers and new armaments, including tanks and heavy artillery, before the next ceasefire agreement is reached (Depo.ua, March 29).

“From the agreed-upon beginning of the ceasefire, the [Russia-backed] terrorists try to shoot [at us] everything they have at that moment, using tanks and mortars,” commented a Ukrainian fighter with the nom de guerre “Bakhmat.” “When the truces first start, there is no fighting indeed, but just for a few hours. Then, single firefights start, sometimes backed by shelling. So it goes on for a couple of days, while tensions mount to finally bring the war back to the front line,” he described (TSN, April 1).

During only the first quarter of the current year, the opposing forces have requested from each other “minor ceasefires” more than 11,000 times, with four “major” truces officially declared since the beginning of the conflict in 2014. But all those were quickly broken. Ukrainian soldiers do not believe any armistice can last. “A truce during a war is absurd. But, if it is a need, we will try to observe it,” said another soldier, who called himself “Basalt” (TSN, April 1). As a result, even the Ukrainian president himself was forced to admit that “unfortunately, we do not have great optimism that the other side will comply with the agreements, but life and health of every Ukrainian warrior is the most precious value” (President.gov.ua., March 30).

In the eyes of the Ukrainian public, the regularly declared armistices along the line of contact in Donbas (ironically, the latest one having been in force since April Fools’ Day) have become an object of open criticism and ridicule. “In our experience, a similar ceasefire started on September 1, last year, and lasted hardly a single day,” recalled Oleg Zhdanov, a former officer of the operations division in the Ukrainian General Staff (Dialog.ua, March 30).

In the opinion of Yuriy Karin, the editor of the Ukrainian website Sprotyv.info, the latest ceasefire had no chance of being observed in light of what has been going on in Donbas militarily. “The Kremlin’s propagandists have filmed bombardments of the settlements controlled by the self-proclaimed republics by Russian gunners themselves and then shown the damage as supposedly the outcome of the Ukrainian army’s shelling,” he said. “So having [itself] violated the Minsk agreements, Russia keeps blaming Ukraine” (Obozrevatel.com, March 30).

Dmytro Tymchuk, a Ukrainian member of Parliament and military expert, believes that the April 1 ceasefire was a senseless project because of Moscow’s recent activities aimed at initiating a “Transnistria scenario” in Donbas – that is, recognizing the self-proclaimed republics’ “passports,” “state borders,” etc. So the important issue, according to him, is not so much whether the ceasefire would be broken, but what may happen after it is. The Kremlin will continue to try its best to destabilize and then to dismantle Ukraine, while using both the Donbas conflict and the negative social and economic situation in the country to achieve this goal, Mr. Tymchuk argued (Sprotyv.info, March 31).

According to Mr. Zhdanov, the Kremlin has an excellent opportunity to put pressure on Kyiv now, while many Western leaders are busy with approaching election campaigns in their own countries (notably in Germany and France – two members of the Normandy Group, along with Ukraine and Russia). “He [Putin] now has the best moment to deliver blows [against Ukraine] with impunity. The stronger he strikes, the stronger he seeks to impose his will on our leaders,” Mr. Zhdanov maintained (Dialog.ua, March 30).

Under these circumstances, Ukrainians are increasingly questioning the continued relevance of the existing Minsk conflict resolution format, with calls for a more viable alternative being heard ever more often. Even, the co-chair of the Greens faction inside the European Parliament, Rebecca Harms, has openly stated that since the truce in Donbas was violated from the very first day after the signing the Minsk agreements, there is no point to expect that they will be implemented in their current form. While attending the Kyiv Security Forum in early April, she called for sending United Nations peacekeepers to Donbas. Only such a truly international and independent force would be capable of guaranteeing observance of the reached agreements, she stated (Eurointegration.com.ua, April 6).

The latest failed ceasefire in Donbas, like the countless other before it, will soon be forgotten. But it will be important to closely monitor the situation there to see whether the Russia-backed forces will try to use the current situation to make renewed gains against Ukrainian positions.

The article above is reprinted from Eurasia Daily Monitor with permission from its publisher, the Jamestown Foundation, www.jamestown.org.

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