Ukraine ceasefire holding in the main but still shaky

By bne IntelliNews September 8, 2014

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For the ceasefire deal struck in Belarus between the government in Kyiv and separatist rebels on September 5 to hold, Ukraine needed to get through at least 48 hours without a major clash between the opposing sides. By the morning of September 8 it seemed that the ceasefire had survived the weekend - but only just.

Reports says there is still fighting over the strategic port city of Mariupol, whose situation on the coast of the Sea of Azov would help provide an overland link between Russia and the annexed Crimean peninsula through the disputed Donbass region of southeast Ukraine.

The chances for peace are still delicately balanced on a fulcrum. The first 48 hours of a ceasefire are always the most difficult. Itchy trigger fingers and lingering anger means ceasefires are prone to collapse. The situation in Ukraine is made doubly difficult by the fact that neither the Kremlin nor Kyiv completely control their proxies that are doing much of the fighting.

Both sides reported deaths at the weekend and the battle for control of Mariupolseems to be continuing unabated, according to reports. However, both Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin called each other on September 6 to affirm they consider the ceasefire to be holding so far.

The prisoner swap began on Saturday September 6 as planned, but it seems that the bulk of prisoners are still in captivity due to disputes between the two sides. 

Ceasefire protocol is imprecise, nebulous and ambiguous

Commentators have criticised the final protocol from the Minsk summit as being "imprecise, nebulous and ambiguous."

"What is certain is that this documents is… vague to such a degree that I would argue that it is basically impossible to implement. Knowing the degree to which Russian diplomats are normally maniacally fastidious and pedantic with words, I can only conclude that they have deliberately sabotaged this agreement and that it’s sole use was to deflate the bellicose mood of the NATO summit. But as a basis for a real ceasefire it is useless, never mind a real negotiation for a final status agreement or peace treaty," the blogger Saker said after reading the text of the protocol.

In the short term, the most glaring lacuna in the protocol document is the absence of a timetable for the withdrawal of forces and heavy weaponry or details of who will supervise and verify this process.

Indeed, there already seems to be confusion. While both sides said over the weekend that the ceasefire seems to be "largely holding," this is contradicted by the reports of ongoing fighting in and around Mariupol.  The definition of the agreed "ceasefire" in the first of 12 points: "Ensure the immediate bilateral cessation of the use of weapons," doesn't seem to extend to the complete cessation of shooting.

A woman died and at least four people were wounded when fighting flared again in eastern Ukraine overnight on September 7. Shelling resumed near the port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov late on September 6, just hours after Putin and Poroshenko had agreed in a phone call that the truce was holding, Reuters reported. Fighting also broke out early on September 7 on the northern outskirts of rebel-held Donetsk, the region's industrial hub. Fighting has since died down but shooting and mortar fire remains sporadic.

Perhaps more importantly, the document is vague about how a "decentralisation" of power will work in the disputed regions. Poroshenko said on his website that his peace plan follows an agreement with Putin, including “significant” steps toward “decentralization” in Donetsk and Luhansk, which would gain special economic and language rights. However, he didn’t go into details.

This talk of "decentralization" follows language used by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the days before the Minsk summit began and is a significant concession to Putin. However, it stops short of the Kremlin's preferred options of "federalization" of some or all of Ukraine. The key issue the two sides must agree on is exactly how much political autonomy the disputed regions will have at the end of the process – and this is going to be a very tough negotiation indeed.

The next three-way meeting of officials from Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE will meet for negotiations in seven or eight days, separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko said on September 7 on Kommersant-FM radio.

Nato members will arm Ukraine is ceasefire collapses

The stakes are continuing to rise. Poroshenko claimed in an interview with the BBC that he had been offered "lethal" high precision weapons by Nato members, but refused to name which countries deals had been struck with.

On September 8, Yuri Lutsenko, a Poroshenko adviser and leader of the Pyotr Poroshenko Bloc party, wrote on his Facebook page that the latest Nato summit had yielded agreements on sending Western military advisers and the delivery of modern weapons from the US, France, Italy, Poland and Norway.

The countries named were quick to deny any definite deal had been cut. A representative of the US administration said on September 7 in a statement that: "The United States has made no decisions on possible arms supplies to Ukraine."

Poland’s defence ministry also refuted reports about its plans to supply state-of-the-art weapons to Ukraine. “I do not confirm this information. No agreements were reached at the NATO summit on modern arms deliveries from Poland to Ukraine,” a spokesman for the Polish defence ministry said on Sunday, reports TASS. “Most probably, the president’s adviser spoke about his plans for the future.”

Sanctions on hold - maybe

The West announced new sectoral sanctions against Russia in late July over Moscow’s part in Ukrainian events. Many commentators believe that Putin pushed hard for a ceasefire last week to head off the next round of sanctions being proposed by the US and Europe. And it seems to have worked: Germany has shown a marked reluctance to impose fresh sanctions on Russia because of its significant business interests in that country. Several other European countries also with business interests have joined Germany, especially Hungary and those that lie along the proposed route for the South Stream gas pipeline. However the US, which has few investments or economic assets in Russia, has shown less compunction about punishing the Kremlin.

However the talk of sanctions continues, though it remains to be seen what, if any, sanctions are imposed unless the ceasefire collapses completely.

The EU has threatened to expand the number of Russian companies unable to raise money in the bloc's capital markets to include three major state-owned oil companies, according to documents seen by The Wall Street Journal, including the oil arm of state-owned Gazprom, Gazpromneft, and the pipeline transport company Transneft. However, Gazprom itself is still excluded from all the sanctions lists. Threats have also been made targeting Russia's ability to hold the 2018 World Cup, an idea that the official football body FIFA called "stupid" over the weekend. Statements on a decision whether the new proposed EU sanctions will be implemented are expected this week.

With the West still talking tough about sanctions, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was talking tough back. If the EU does impose a new round of sanctions on Russia's financial sector, the PM threatened to close Russian airspace to European and US air carriers, which would causing havoc to international travel.

Western nations “should be asked whether there will be new sanctions, but if there are sanctions connected with energy or further restrictions for our financial sector, we will have to respond asymmetrically,” Medvedev said in an interview with the Vedomosti business daily. “For example, with restrictions in the transport sphere. We proceed from the fact that we have friendly relations with our partners, so the sky above Russia is open for flights; but if we are restricted, we will have to respond," the PM said in an interview.

Russia has already winged the European economic recovery by imposing a ban on imports of EU agricultural products, one of the biggest markets in Europe.

What lies beyond the fighting

Medvedev tentatively offered to help pay for some of the reconstruction effort following the fighting, but only in the south-eastern Donbass region, and specifically said it will continue to provide humanitarian aid to the residents of the now smashed towns and villages.

“We will anyway help Ukraine’s southeastern regions, we are already doing it, this is the Russian Federation’s humanitarian mission for regions and people close to us,” Medvedev said at the weekend.

On August 22, Russia delivered over 2,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid, including food (grain, sugar, baby food), medications, sleeping bags and portable power generators, to eastern Ukrainian regions, reports TASS. But Medvedev said that the Kyiv government needs to repair the rest of the damage.

"Those who make decisions to use artillery, tanks and military aircraft against their own nationals and cities should realize that they will have to pay a huge economic price for that," Medvedev said in the interview with Vedomosti.

“Besides buildings [in southeast Ukraine], production facilities have been destroyed too. It is a very big problem how they will be rebuilt. But it is up to Ukraine to take care of it, if the Ukrainian authorities believe the regions are part of Ukraine,” Medvedev said.

The International Monetary Fund's stand-by loan programme is providing only enough money to keep Ukraine's economy ticking over. Most of the approximately $7bn that is due to be paid out this year by the IMF will be used up simply meeting Russia's gas bill. However, a donor conference has been called for October where the international community will have to stump up several billions, if not tens of billions of dollars, more in order to simply get the Ukraine economy back to where it was before the fighting started.

Map of military positions at the time of the ceasefire called September 5


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