September 1, 2017

Back-to-school ceasefire fails to take hold as Europe braces for Zapad military drills

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KYIV – When the school year resumes on September 1, the more than 200,000 children living in the Donbas war zone will face life-threatening conditions. More than 54,000 children live in the Ukrainian government-controlled part of easternmost Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts alone, according to the United Nations.

Like other interim truces within the larger Minsk peace agreement, the back-to-school ceasefire that was supposed to come into force at midnight on August 25 has failed to hold.

Despite backing from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke by telephone on August 22, fighting continues along the 450-kilometer demarcation line in the war-torn area comprising 3 percent of Ukraine’s dismembered territory.

One Ukrainian fighter from a volunteer unit has been killed so far, according to activists helping the war cause, and at least four have been wounded. Ukrainian defense officials say no military deaths were recorded since the four European leaders brokered the truce.

Still, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Macron said the truce “has not been fully implemented by the very same parties which signed it” in a joint statement they released on August 29. “There is still a large number of ceasefire violations, including with the use of heavy weapons,” they added.

Just on August 30, exactly 83 “explosions” were recorded in the war zone by the body charged with monitoring the non-existent truce, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). And 99 “persons in military-style outfits” were observed crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border during the week ending on August 29, according to the OSCE. That’s 53 more than during the previous reporting period.

One in five of the 740 schools in eastern Ukraine have been damaged or destroyed since Russia invaded the Donbas in April 2014 in an unprovoked war that has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced more than 1.7 million Ukrainians.

Children located within 15 kilometers of the war zone require urgent and sustained psychological and social support due to war trauma, UNICEF, the U.N.’s children agency, has reported.

“Similar back-to-school ceasefires failed to hold in 2015 and 2016,” Theirworld, a United Kingdom-based charity that helps children fulfill their potential, said in a news statement on August 30. “In 2014, as new students arrived at school carrying flowers, a shell landed in a playground in Donetsk and killed four people.”

Besides the persistent fighting already in its fourth year, the United Nations said in a report published on August 21 that children in the combat zone face increased “isolation” as access to public transportation diminishes due to damaged roads, the presence of mines on farmland and unexploded ordnances, and infrastructure damage, all of which has caused “monetary poverty” and high unemployment rates.

“The conditions of, and access to, key infrastructure such as health, education and water has been negatively affected as well,” the U.N. report stated.

Moscow military drills cause jitters

The Kremlin’s upcoming weeklong Zapad (West) military exercises that start on September 14 are raising fears that it will lay the groundwork for another of Mr. Putin’s conquests.

While Russia insists only 12,700 troops will be deployed and Kremlin defense officials dismissed allegations that the drills will be used for an occupation, Western capitals, including Kyiv, believe they could be cover for a military offensive.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said on August 29 that Zapad would be a “routine exercise and that any suggestion by the Western media that the drills would be used as cover for an invasion of the Baltic states, Poland, or Ukraine was unfounded,” Stratfor, a Texas-based intelligence firm, wrote on August 29.

Moscow held similar military exercises prior to invading Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in February 2014. Military experts describe Russia’s use of snap military drills as “maskirovka” or disguise.

Yet Western officials estimate the exercises will have some 100,000 troops deployed. They will take place near Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia – all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – as well as Ukraine’s borders.

Belarus is being used as a partial staging ground for the exercises. The former Soviet republic will see around 10,200 Belarusian and Russian military personnel deployed in Belarus alone, according to Stratfor, which cited Belarusian First Deputy Defense Minister Oleg Belokonev. They will also involve “370 armored fighting vehicles — including about 140 main battle tanks — 40 combat aircraft and helicopters, and up to 150 artillery units and multiple-launch rocket systems,” the intelligence gathering agency stated.

The exercises could be a “Trojan horse,” the commanding general of the U.S. army in Europe, Ben Hodges, has warned, saying they could bring “Russian soldiers and weapons into Belarus and leave them there,” the Financial Times reported on August 27.

Furthermore, NATO has complained that Russia is not being transparent enough about the drills, although the defense alliance is sending three observers to monitor the drills.

Russia is obligated under the so-called Vienna Document in accordance with OSCE rules to give countries advance notice of maneuvers involving over 13,000 military personnel.

NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said on August 30 that the rules stipulate monitors have “briefings on the exercise scenario and progress, opportunities to talk to individual soldiers about the exercise, and overflights of the exercise,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty reported.

“Russia and Belarus are instead choosing a selective approach that falls short,” the U.S.-government funded news outlet said, citing the spokesperson. “Such avoidance of mandatory transparency only raises questions about the nature and purpose of the exercise.”

West reaffirms support for Ukrainian sovereignty

Meanwhile, America’s new envoy for peace in Ukraine reiterated Washington’s stance that it’s up to Russia to get sanctions lifted for occupying Ukraine’s territory of Crimea and for waging war in Donbas.

Commenting on Russia’s comments in Minsk, where he recently met with Kremlin officials, that there are “fresh ideas and approaches” to finding peace, Ambassador Kurt Volker said the “status quo is not good for anybody,”

In an interview published on August 29 by Germany’s Deutsche Welle, he continued: “It’s not good for Russia, not good for Ukraine, it’s not good for the people of the Donbas. And in fact it is likely to get worse. So it is urgent that we try to really move this issue.”

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Volker called the Donbas fighting a “hot war” and said forces there were “under Russian command and control” and routinely fire upon and obstruct ceasefire monitors.

He also acknowledged that the Minsk process is “not going anywhere.”

His words followed a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ visit to Ukraine on August 24 at the time of Independence Day celebrations, during which he promised continued American support for Ukraine.

Standing that day alongside Mr. Poroshenko, he accused Russia of “seeking to redraw international borders by force” and of “undermining the sovereign and free nations of Europe.”

U.S. Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Secretary Mattis’s Ukraine visit was “yet another opportunity for the United States to correct its policy toward Ukraine and provide the lethal defensive assistance the country needs to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Reuters news agency reported.

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