Shaky ceasefire takes hold in Ukraine

By bne IntelliNews June 24, 2014

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A ceasefire called by President Petro Poroshenko at the end of last week is taking hold in Ukraine after a month of civilian deaths during fierce fighting across the eastern half of the country, as separatist forces said on June 23 that they will lay down their arms until June 27. 

Calls from all sides to end the violence have been gathering in volume over the last few days, which has killed 356 people since the launch of military operations in May, including 257 civilians and at least 14 children, according to a report from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In an address to the nation on June 20, Poroshenko laid out a 15-point peace plan and declared a unilateral ceasefire by the Ukrainian army. Fighting continued over the weekend but Ukrainian officials reported there were no serious clashed on June 23. 

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso had hailed the peace plan on June 22, and called on Moscow to join Kyiv in an effort to bring the conflict to an end. Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed the call for a halt in hostilities the same day. 

Yet rebel leaders in Eastern Ukraine had initially rejected the plan. However, they reportedly agreed on June 23 to honour the agreement and down their arms until June 27. The self-styled prime minister of the breakaway Donetsk People's Republic Alexander Borodai said he would respect the truce imposed by Poroshenko, as part of a peace plan to end the insurgency by pro-Russian separatists in the Russian-speaking parts of the country. 

Borodai met with a contact group that included a senior Russian diplomat, former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma and a representative of the OSCE on June 23. "The consultation ended with authorities of the Luhansk and Donetsk Republics agreeing to maintain a ceasefire for their part … until the 27th," Borodai said after the talks. 

The change in tack from the pro-Russian separatists comes as the US and EU have said they will review another round of sanctions against Russia this week unless it reins in the militants. Ukraine is also due to sign off on the commercial part of an Association Agreement with the European Union on the 27th. 

Kuchma and other former Ukrainian presidents sent an open letter to Putin urging him to begin negotiating process. "We have signed an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin that it is necessary to stop aggression. Ukraine is ready for negotiations," first Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk told reporters. In Moscow, the Kremlin said Putin underlined in a conversation with US President Barack Obama that to normalise the situation, it's necessary to "effectively end fighting and start direct talks between the conflicting parties."

Putin had echoed the calls for a stop in the shooting on June 22. "It is vital that dialogue between all conflicting sides would begin on the basis of the ceasefire in order to find compromise acceptable for everyone, so that people living the southeast of Ukraine would feel that they are an inseparable part of that country, that they have all the rights of citizens of that country and that these rights are guaranteed by the fundamental law of the country, the constitution, among others," the Russian leader said. 

Contradictory signs

The tentative agreement saw June marked by a lull in the vicious fighting, suggesting that all sides are holding to the ceasefire for the moment. An agreement was also reached to release all hostages. Volodymyr Chepovy, an official from Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council, said that from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. no incidents of weapons use were recorded. "There were no attempts to seize administrative buildings or military points," he said, according to the Moscow Times

The West met the success of the ceasefire as a sign Moscow could be ready to help bring an end to the stand off over Ukraine and stop fuelling the insurgency in the eastern provinces. "The EU calls on all sides to agree and honour a ceasefire immediately in order to stabilize the security situation, achieve a genuine de-escalation and create the necessary conditions for President Poroshenko's peace plan to be implemented," the EU said in a statement.

However, Putin appears to be seeking to ensure there is as much ambiguity in the Kremlin's stance as he can. While the Russian leader has come out in support of Poroshenko´s peace efforts, he has also ordered fresh military exercises across central Russia. Although that does not see units on stand by on the border with Ukraine, reports say Russian troops have moved back towards its neighbour, leaving Western leaders struggling to decipher Putin's intent.

The EU Council is due to meet on June 26/27, and has threatened to impose new sanctions on Moscow if it does not act to calm the conflict. Recent reports claim that Russia is doing nothing to stop the flow of arms and other supplies across its south western border.

Meeting in Luxembourg, EU foreign ministers warned it is crucial Putin takes this “major chance” for peace. “This week must be dedicated to bringing about a de-escalation of the conflict. That is the priority,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. ”We have called on Russia to get on board and that has to happen in the next few days,” he noted, but added that there “were contradictory signs” regarding Moscow´s intentions.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague was more blunt, noting that preparatory work on tougher EU sanctions targeting specific sectors of the Russian economy is already done. “By Friday, we will be able to see how Russia is responding,” Hague said. “We are ready to take those wider sanctions and no one in Moscow should be in any doubt about that.”

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