Continued Fighting Ukraine Ceasefire Crumbles

The ceasefire that began Sunday in Ukraine has done little to calm fears of fighting between national forces and pro-Russian separatists.
Ukranian solders on the road near Debaltseve on Feb 15.

The ceasefire was barely 12 hours old, as men of all ages crawled through in the snow near a crumbling tractor factory. Others worked their way hand-over-hand along a rope from one oak tree to the next, or climbed over high wooden barricades.

These men were volunteers for the Ukrainian army, receiving basic training in anticipation of war, even though a Ukraine's president and Russia's Vladimir Putin had agreed a tentative cessation of hostilities last week.

“I don’t trust the peace,” said a gaunt man in a camouflage suit. “Why should Putin, after so many attempts, now let the weapons permanently go silent?”

He was right to be skeptical. According to the deal, both sides should have begun withdrawing heavy weaponry by Tuesday, but there was little sign of this happening.

Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko held a series of urgent overnight phone calls to discuss why the ceasefire they had thrashed out during an all night negotiating session last week, was falling apart.

The recent bout of fighting has focused on Debaltseve, a strategically important transport hub between rebel-claimed Donetsk and Luhansk. Pro-Russian separatists have for weeks tried to encircle thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and occupy the roads and railway links between Donetsk and Luhansk. To accomplish this, the start time of the ceasefire was delayed by 24 hours as more Russian weapons were brought in.

Putin doesn’t want peace. He could have had it long ago. Commander Nasar, "Asov" Volunteer Battalion

On Sunday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin accused separatists of preventing military observers from the Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from reaching Debaltseve.

The Donetsk separatist leader, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, told his fighters to observe the ceasefire, but there wasn’t “a word” about Debaltseve in the Minsk agreement, he said. If the surrounded Ukrainian soldiers attempt to leave the city, he said, it would be considered an attack.

Dressed entirely in black, Mr. Poroshenko gave the ceasefire order to the general staff shortly before midnight via nationwide television address. At the same time, the Ukrainian president warned against any new offensive at Debaltseve: “If they hit us in one cheek, we will not turn the other,” he said, adding, “May God forgive me.” He also said martial law will be imposed nationwide if the ceasefire doesn’t hold.

The men of the “Asov” volunteer battalion, practicing with their Kalashnikovs and doing military exercises in the snow, have no faith at all in the ceasefire.

“Putin doesn’t want peace. He could have had it long ago,” said Commander Nasar, who most recently fought in the battle for the steel town of Mariupol. “These supposed people’s republics can’t survive in their present form, they will continue to expand. But we will stop them.”

In the Bereznitsky Aesthetics gallery, located in the trendy artist’s quarter on the banks of the Dnieper River in Kiev, a women standing beneath a painting of a lady with a red hat, seemed unwilling to believe the truce would hold. “The war will go on, if things go well, for only half a year,” she said. “And Putin can maybe even win, but the Ukrainians are no herd that will follow him.”

The accord hammered out in Minsk – dubbed the “triumph of perfidy” by the Ukrainian newspaper, Djen (The Day) – has split Ukraine. Many want to fight to keep the country together. Others would be happy to finally be rid of Donbass. They agree on only one thing: Mr. Putin and the Kremlin should leave Ukraine alone and let it move toward Europe.

Tatjana Silina, one of Ukraine’s most respected journalists, is convinced Ms. Merkel and Mr. Hollande struck a deal with Mr. Putin to protect their own national economic interests. They staked their reputations on it, she said, and couldn’t return home empty handed, while Mr. Putin got his way by using the tactics of time pressure and fatigue against the other leaders.

Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian political journalist known for his anti-corruption investigations who was elected to the Ukrainian parliament, fears a dark future with Ukraine being “Bosnia-fied.” He believes the Putin regime will demand the right of veto for the self-proclaimed “people’s republics,” which will put a stop to Ukraine’s efforts to embrace Europe. This fifth column will ensure the country is ungovernable, he added, just like Bosnia after the war in Yugoslavia.


Mathias Brüggmann is head of the Handelsblatt foreign affairs desk. To contact: [email protected].