Minsk “ceasefire” leaves more doubts than safety, with EU already planning steps further

EU Heads of State and Government meet at the European Council on 12 February 2015, in Brussels. The main topics are the conflict in Ukraine, counter terrorism and the economic situation. From left to right: Mr Petro POROSHENKO, President of Ukraine; Mr Donald TUSK, President of the European Council. (European Council TV newsroom, 12/02/2015)

EU Heads of State and Government meet at the European Council on 12 February 2015, in Brussels. The main topics are the conflict in Ukraine, counter terrorism and the economic situation. From left to right: Mr Petro POROSHENKO, President of Ukraine; Mr Donald TUSK, President of the European Council. (European Council TV newsroom, 12/02/2015)

When the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said that the Minsk ceasefire deal was important “but not definitive”, at the morrow of the agreement, everyone knew she was right. Minsk agreement was a crucial happening, in which a big step towards peace between Russia and Ukraine was taken given the delicate moment, but only a step. The uncertain situation of these days says it all, as still it remains unclear whether or not a real ceasefire ever took place.

All news coming from the Eastern Ukrainian front are often in contrast with each other and it seems that no step ahead can hold out without a step back to follow. Minsk agreement’s points were substantially a ceasefire which began at midnight on February 16 (local time) and included the following: the withdrawal of heavy weapons in a two-week period starting from February 17, the withdrawal of all foreign militias from Ukrainian territory, the amnesty for all prisoners involved in fighting, the lifting of government restrictions on rebel-held areas and measures regarding the decentralisation for rebel regions and the control of the orders by the end of 2015.

In the late hours of last Saturday the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists swapped nearly 200 prisoners, in an action that gave hopes for the peace plan to be successful at first. Kiev reportedly exchanged 52 rebels for 140 soldiers near the frontline outside the village of Zholobok, some 12 miles west of the rebel-held city Luhansk. Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, wrote on his Facebook page that 139 soldiers had been freed, including some involved in the fierce defence of Donetsk airport and others who had fought in the strategic town of Debaltseve.

Furthermore, the second point of the Minsk agreement started to bear fruits in the last days apparently. Kiev‘s government and rebels in eastern Ukraine have finally agreed to start pulling back heavy weapons from the frontline. Pro-Russian rebels began to withdraw heavy weapons from the frontline in east Ukraine last Sunday, although the process will not be completed until 8 March, five days later than the deadline set in Minsk. The agreement was signed by Luhansk rebel leader Igor Plotnitsky and by Donetsk rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko, the latter from his hospital bed, after he was wounded in the ankle during a conflict at Debaltseve, as reported by the BBC. Weapons are to be pulled back on both sides, in order to create a buffer zone up to 140 kilometres wide.

The two measures, which were both engineered by the leaders of France, Germany and Ukraine during Minsk peace-talks with Russia, gave hope for the ceasefire to hold at first, but the situation might be way more complex now. The prisoners’ swap took place just hours before two people were killed in a suspected terrorist attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, a happening that can make the peace deal even more shaky. What is more, the weapons’ withdrawal conceals a complex and delicate equilibrium. Indeed there has never been a confirmation from Kiev or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is tasked with monitoring compliance with the cease-fire, so far.

In addition, Reuters reported the government in Kiev saying armed columns had crossed the border from Russia towards the separatist-held areas to to reinforce the troops on Sunday. Spokesman Andriy Lysenko said a military train carrying 60 armed vehicles including tanks had arrived in the town of Amvrosiivka from Russia last Saturday. A convoy of military equipment had later crossed the border near Novoazovsk, east of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, as monitored by Reuters.

Generally speaking, it’s indeed the first point listed in the agreement signed a couple of weeks ago in Minsk, Belarus, to arouse concerns. Better to turn doubts into questions: has ever a real ceasefire took place? Many say that Minsk ceasefire was on paper only, as it was breached from minute 1. There were reports of shelling near Donetsk airport last Sunday. Explosions were heard in the main rebel-held city Donetsk in the early hours on Sunday and Kiev officials say the rebels used artillery and rockets to attack a Ukrainian camp.

The European Union is embarrassed, and it is basically losing patience. The statement from the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, which was released last weekend, makes all this embarrassment clear. “Since last Sunday the European Union has been devoting all efforts to make the Minsk II Agreement work”, Mr. Tusk stated, as if this opening was a declaration of intents. “Today, we have to face the reality that almost one week later there have been more than 300 violations of the ceasefire. People are still dying”, he said. “We are clearly reaching a point when further diplomatic efforts will be fruitless unless credibly backed up by further action”, he then added.

The situation is critical, and very crucial is a point that Mr. Tusk finally touched in his statement: further steps. What are the right ones? “I am now consulting European Union leaders on the next steps”, Mr. Tusk said. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, had said ahead of a meeting with U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond that Washington is considering further sanctions.

It still remains to be seen though whether the EU will be forced to go back to the sanctions tactics if the truce is not respected.

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