bne IntelliNews -
Fighting has escalated in East Ukraine's Donbas region, as Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels jostle for position during the countdown to a ceasefire that will come into effect on February 15.
The ceasefire deal was hammered out in Minsk on February 12 after all-night talks by the heads of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine. But it left crucial questions open as to what territory each sides would control, which are likely to undermine the new Minsk agreement just as territorial questions undermined a previous agreement signed in Minsk on September 5.
“This is not peace, this is fullscale war,” frontline commentator Yury Butusov blogged on February 13. “The Minsk peace agreements have not brought about a drop in tensions, but instead an escalation."
"The battle over the Debaltseve salient [a railway town held by Ukraine but encircled by the rebels] has reached fever pitch. Regular Russian forces are directing massed artillery bombardment of the Ukrainian positions, and Russian units are storming our redouts, trying to break through the defensive perimiter,” Butusov said, one of many Ukrainian voices to claim regular Russian units are fighting in the guise of rebels.
Rebel forces claim to have encircled Debaltseve, and Russian President Vladimir Putin was reported during the Minsk negotiations to have demanded that the town be surrendered to the rebels.
The rebels appear to be making a last push to tighten their grip around the town before the ceasefire. “The 'Russian-Terrorist forces' have been tasked with raising their flag over Debaltseve and Mariupol [before the February 15 ceasefire],” Deputy Defence Minister Petro Mekhed said at a briefing on February 13.
The focus of fighting is the roadside village of Loginove on the highway leading westward from Debaltseve into Ukrainian-held territory. Debaltseve, a stategically important town for road and rail connections, juts into rebel-held territory, forming an exposed salient.
“Logvinove is in the hands of the Russian forces,” wrote MP and blogger Semen Semenchenko, who commands the Donbas battalion of volunteers. The Ukrainian command entrusted the Donbas batallion with retaking Loginove from the rebels, but Semenchenko blamed the unit's failure to do so on hesitant support from the Ukrainian army.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said that the battle was still raging over Loginove. He denied that any 'pocket' had formed around Debaltseve, arguing that the highway was not the only available supply route for the town, where around 8,000 Ukrainian forces are believed to be dug in. Lysenko said that the forces there continue to receive supplies sufficient for their missions.
But roads out of Debaltseve seem nearly impassable due to rebel fire. Ukrainian journalists reported that 13 wounded Ukrainian soldiers were killed on February 13 when trucks carrying them out of Debaltseve came under fire. The Associated Press reported seeing two smouldering Ukrainian army trucks on the highway.
Vladislav Seleznyov, Ukrainian general staff spokesman, said on February 12 that eight soldiers had been killed and 34 wounded over the previous day.
Lysenko also said that Debalsteve had been awarded to Ukraine under the terms of the peace agreement signed in Minsk on September 5, 2015, and so Ukraine would not yield the town to the rebels. Russian President Vladimir Putin is reported to have called on Ukraine to surrender the encircled town, during talks leading up to the peace deal agreed on February 12.
As with the previous ceasefire agreed in September in Minsk, the weakness of the new ceasefire will be the disputed positions on the ground, with Debaltseve a candidate to play the same role as did the disputed territory of Donetsk Airport in scuppering the first peace deal.
The provisions of the peace agreement mean that Ukraine will have to remove heavy weaponry from Debaltseve starting February 15, leaving the town badly exposed.
“It is difficult to expect that this new document [Minsk peace agreement] will lead to a lasting stabilisation of the situation in eastern Ukraine, and so the risk of a sudden escalation of tension has not in fact been reduced at all,” write analysts at the Polish think-tank the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). “In the coming months, the Ukrainian government will be under constant pressure from the separatists and Russia as they try to force further concessions on Kyiv, while in parallel threatening to resume armed hostilities.”
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