Government forces and separatists in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region implemented a renewed ceasefire on September 1 to avoid further civilian casualties as the new school year begins across the country.
Although a nominal ceasefire already exists it has been increasingly violated in recent weeks, with both sides accusing the other of constant low-level attacks. The new measure came into effect at midnight on August 31 and came amid a significant decrease in the number of incidents in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions where fighting has raged since mid-2014.
"The number of attacks in past 24 hours fell to 25, from 75 previous day," the Ukrainian military's press office wrote on Facebook, marking the lowest number of firing incidents since May.
Although the ceasefire was feebly termed a ‘peace and quiet order’ as schools reopened, participants at recent multi-lateral talks in Minsk stressed hopes of an indefinite prolongation.
Representatives of rebel forces noted in a statement “the necessity of the indefinite ceasefire in connection with the start of the new academic year”, Martin Sajdik, special representative of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said earlier. "I personally urge all parties to express their support for this statement at the highest level," he added, noting that that exactly a year ago the same initiative was generally implemented.
In Moscow, which Kyiv accuses of fomenting the conflict to destabilise Ukraine, the Kremlin welcomed the reduction of hostilities and called for more efforts to implement the broader Minsk peace agreements reached in February 2015.
“We are hoping that the implementation of this agreement by all sides of the conflict … will allow to make a progress in the implementation of the Minsk complex of measures and intensify joint efforts in search of compromises on all aspects of a peaceful resolution of the crisis,” President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
However, Ukrainian authorities say lack of security in Donbas prevents holding local elections in areas controlled by separatists, which is a key demand of the Minsk accords. Russia, which Ukraine and the West say is supplying weapons and military personnel to the rebels, insists on holding the elections as the first step to ending the fighting, which has claimed some 10,000 lives.
The ceasefire went against earlier expectations of increased fighting in the Donbas that would strengthen Russia's hand in this and other issues at the G-20 summit in China on September 4-5. Despite conflicting signals from the Kremlin, Putin is likely to meet with fellow mediators German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande to discuss the Donbas situation.
“I guess Putin surprises us all again – he talks of potential re-escalation a few weeks back, and Russian troops manoeuvre around Crimea, and Western Russia, and then he goes and does the opposite. We see another ceasefire attempt – agreed for today,” commented Nomura International strategist Tim Ash. “Presumably this is all meant to create some positive mood music around the G20 where Putin wants to get some ‘quality time’ with President Obama, and presumably cut some bigger picture deal this side of US presidential elections.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine is ready to step up efforts with its foreign partners to bring peace to its war-torn eastern regions, President Petro Poroshenko pledged on August 24 as his country marked 25 years of independence.
Kyiv will reinvigorate the so-called Normandy format of the peace talks, which includes France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, to bring peace to the Donbas. "The Normandy format will be resurrected in the near future," Poroshenko told a meeting of Ukrainian diplomats, while calling for a tougher international line on Russia. "It's necessary to maintain and reinforce the sanctions against Russia until the complete cessation of aggression," he added.