Ben Aris in Moscow -
The foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France agreed on a plan to resume the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine at a meeting in Berlin on July 2. Fierce fighting raged while the talks were going on, with the death toll rising fast. Reports of dozens of civilians caught up in and dying from the shelling are coming out of the region, although details remain sketchy.
The ministers' agreement is actually simply an agreement that a new agreement is needed and will not stop the fighting yet. In a joint statement after the talks, the parties said the steps include reopening talks on a new ceasefire no later than July 5, which will be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The situation on the ground remains confused, with both Ukrainian government forces and associated militias (some of whom are reportedly manned by members of the right-wing groups Svoboda and Right Sector), as well as the pro-Russian separatists (widely reported to be supported by Russian mercenaries and irregular troops from places like Chechnya) suffering casualties.
The rebel Donbas battalion released this video of their fighters in a gun battle in eastern Ukraine, where five reportedly died in the shootout.
The spokesman of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" conceded on his Twitter account that the separatist forces have been hit hard by the significant escalation of the renewed government campaign in the east of the country. But the separatists are holding on to many positions and he denied reports that some had surrendered.
Civilians were the main victims of the clashes on July 2. Much of the postings on social media carry harrowing photos and video of normal people caught in the fighting. Several towns have been both bombed and shelled, which separatists claim have no military significance because no separatist forces were there. The authorities in Kyiv have counter-claimed that some of the tragic footage of villages turned to rubble was due to separatist shelling and not the Ukrainian army action.
The video here (Warning: Graphic) is from Kondrashovku, a village 10km from Lugansk that the Russian-backed RT broadcaster said it visited on July 2. Kondrashovku has been at the epicentre of fighting recently after it was bombed by Ukrainian forces; the video shows residential housing ripped to pieces by mortar shells and as the cameraman walks past a dead cat there is a shoe with the owner's foot still inside. Other footage, shot by Russian media, shows bodies in the village blown to pieces. Several reports from the village claim that five died, including a five-year-old boy hit by shrapnel. RT said it later confirmed the death toll in an interview with the nearby hospital.
LifeNews, a Russian news outlet with close ties to Russia's security apparatus, also showed footage from Kondrashovku of the widespread damage, reportedly inflicted by Ukrainian strikes on July 2.
Kyiv denies the damage done in Kondrashovku was due to the army, saying that its airstrikes were not conducted nearby, and their artillery was firing in a different direction. According to the statement published by 112.ua, Kyiv is blaming the separatists for the shelling that is killing civilians.
Journalists are working hard to clarify the situation, but in addition to the normal fog of war, objective reporting is thin on the ground as Russian media in particular spin the story hard as part of the parallel information war being fought over Ukraine. However, to the people in the villages who are bearing the brunt of the fighting, many of whom are elderly or infirm, it matter little to whom the bombs belong.
Those that could flee have already left. The UN confirmed reports of over 100,000 refugees leaving the region for Russia or the Crimea - a story that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained last week the western press had almost totally ignored (though a quick search shows it's covered in many western outlets, including the WSJ. However, after covering the Maidan protest in real time, the western press does appear to have relatively few reports from the ground on eastern Ukraine at the moment, focusing mainly on the politics in Kyiv, Moscow and Berlin.
For its part, the US has sought to play down the human cost being paid by residents of eastern Ukraine. US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki last week denied there were large numbers of refugees leaving the region, despite the UN reports. And on July 2 she said the operations of the Ukrainian security forces "have a moderate and restrained character."
"In terms of events of what’s happening on the ground, our view is that the Ukrainian security forces' operations have been moderate and measured; they’ve been taking steps to maintain calm within their own country," Psaki told journalists at a press briefing.
The US continues to take a hard line, claiming that Russia is continuing to destabilize the situation by pouring fighters and materiel into east Ukraine. Psaki added in her briefing: "Let's not forget that we're talking about Russian-backed separatists and Russians moving troops near the border, moving equipment across the border."
Elsewhere, there were many other reports of civilians being caught up in the fighting. A civilian bus came under fire in Slavyansk leaving two people dead, the governor of the "Donbass People's Republic, Pavel Gubarev, said, citing self-defense leader of the "Donetsk People's Republic", Igor Strelkov. "The enemy's artillery is functioning non-stop. Slavyansk is under fire as well. A civilian bus came under fire near a bridge across Kazyonniy Torets. Two people died and three were injured," Gubarev posted on Facebook on July 2, Interfax reports.
Four Ukrainian troops were killed as forces carried out over 100 attacks on rebel positions and forced pro-Russia separatists out of three eastern villages, a military official in Kyiv said on July 2, according to other reports. Ukraine's defence ministry claimed 29 separatist fighters were captured in the southeast operations, Ukraine's Acting Defence Minister Mykhailo Koval said.
Separatists fired a shoulder-launched missile that struck and damaged an SU-24 attack plane, a military spokesman also said, while a Ukrainian border guard was killed in a mortar attack.
Diplomatic effort continues
While fighting rages in Ukraine, diplomats in Berlin tried to repair the broken talks and reinstate the ceasefire, making some modest progress. But the mood was black and the earliest a ceasefire could be called is Saturday, July 5.
"We will not stop looking for diplomatic solutions," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said before the Berlin meeting started. "But we are nowhere near where we want to be."
She also reiterated the threat of further sanctions being applied if Russia was not more helpful in bringing an end to the conflict. "Regarding sanctions against Russia, we have so far reached level two and we cannot rule out having to go further," Merkel said, referring to measures against Russian officials and firms that the West accuses of undermining Ukraine's sovereignty.
Russia is also digging in its heels following the disappointment of the failure of the four-way talks last weekend. Reviving peace talks in Ukraine will be "much more difficult" now that Kyiv has failed to extend a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on July 2.
"In breaking the ceasefire, (Ukraine's) President (Petro) Poroshenko made a dramatic mistake. It will cause more casualties. And he is now personally responsible for them," Medvedev wrote on his Facebook page.
"It will be much more difficult to revive talks. These are the rules of a war," he said, referring to talks between the Kyiv government and the separatist pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Medvedev wrote his comments before the Berlin talks ended with an agreement to hold three-way talks with the rebels by July 5, in an effort to establish an new ceasefire.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who was at the talks in Berlin, said that the government in Kyiv is willing to agree to a ceasefire if it is bilateral and monitored by the OSCE – something the Russians had offered to accept last weekend. Lavrov responded that Russia is willing to work with Ukraine and the OSCE to guard border checkpoints if a truce is agreed upon.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the Berlin meeting as “constructive,” adding that all participants “realize what responsibility we bear.”
The four-minister meeting in Berlin agreed that the violence should cease on all sides, hostages be released and Ukraine border points with Russia be brought back under government control. They welcomed Russia's readiness to grant Ukrainian border guards access to Russian territory to take part in controlling the border checkpoints of Gukovo and Donetsk once the ceasefire is in place. Steinmeier described the package as a "first and an important step toward a bilateral cease-fire,” but cautioned that it is not “a magic formula to resolve everything overnight.”
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