Kyiv, rebels withdraw weapons as peace beckons in Donbas

By bne IntelliNews October 6, 2015

bne IntelliNews -

Kyiv-controlled forces and pro-Russian separatists have started withdrawing tanks and light artillery from the frontline in Luhansk region as was agreed at peace talks held in Paris on October 2, Ukrainian military sources and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) special monitoring mission (SMM) to Ukraine reported.

The Kyiv-based press centre of the so-called Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) reported on October 6 that there were no cases of the violation of the ceasefire by pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas conflict zone in the last day, which allowed Ukrainian troops to continue pulling back weapons from the frontline.

"The long-awaited ceasefire allows the practical implementation of the withdrawal of military equipment and small-caliber weapons from the demarcation line," the press centre said on its Facebook page. "The relocation of Ukrainian tanks from the front lines in Luhansk region will continue today."

Previously, on October 5, Ukrainian military spokesman Ruslan Tkachuk announced that Kyiv has started withdrawing tanks and light artillery from the frontline in the eastern Luhansk region as was agreed last week with pro-Russian separatists. Tkachuk underlined that the withdrawal had been agreed with representatives of the OSCE and should be completed within the next 14 days.

Meanwhile, the SMM announced that pro-Russian separatists in Luhansk region withdraw 30 tanks away from the contact line. “The SMM monitored the process of withdrawal of tanks in accordance with the Addendum to the Package of measures," the SMM's report published on October 4 reads.

"This is an opportunity to do even more to stabilise and normalise the situation," Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor of the OSCE SMM, said the same day.

Donbas elections

These reports appeared against a background of a possible meeting of the trilateral contact group in Minsk on October 6, with the aim to discuss local elections in Donbas, Kostiantyn Yeliseyev, deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, said, according to Interfax news agency.

"Local elections will be discussed by the trilateral contact group... we hope the process will begin there," Yeliseyev told journalists in Kyiv.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said that on October 6 pro-Russian rebels should declare cancellation of previously appointed local elections in some areas of Donbas. "We have information that... militants will declare pseudo-elections of October 18 and November 1 to be abolished," Poroshenko's media service quotes him as saying.

The president added that there was no alternative to holding the elections under Ukrainian law and OSCE criteria for the settlement of crisis in Donbas.

No 'freezing', no escalation

Hopes grew for a resolution to the 18-month conflict after talks in Paris on October 2 between the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia. French President Francois Hollande said after talks with Poroshenko, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin that the elections would now likely take place in January.

However, Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin said on October 5 that while he believes some Western leaders are ready for a compromise on dates for holding elections in rebel-controlled areas, they do not want to risk either a 'freezing' of the conflict in Donbas or its re-escalation.

"If we manage to agree on the modalities of these elections on the basis of Ukrainian legislation and on the basis of OSCE standards, then, certainly, such elections will not be held there tomorrow... But they should take place at some point. In this sense, I see that some of our foreign partners, albeit not all of them, are ready for a possible compromise," Klimkin in an interview with ICTV TV channel, Interfax reported.

However, some observers are skeptical about the chances of legitimate elections being held. It is "hard to imagine the Ukrainian government agreeing to elections with the presence of Russian soldiers", which, according to Kyiv, will take place in Donbas, notes analyst Zenon Zawada of the Concorde Capital consultancy company in Kyiv.

"It’s also hard to imagine Ukraine's parliament agreeing to the Donbas special status before Russian soldiers being removed and border control being restored," Zawada added in a note to clients, classing this as another obstacle to fulfilling the Minsk accords. "And even if that happens, it’s hard to imagine 300 out of 450 MPs agreeing to the conditions of the Donbas special status/specific order, as stated in the Minsk accords."

Russia denies that it has troops fighting in Ukraine, despite the capture of a number of its military personnel in the conflict zone.

At the same time, Zawada underscored the positive value of a ceasefire being successfuly implemented, and that weapons and hardware are being withdrawn from the conflict line. "Yet this conflict is far from over, and we believe it can be re-escalated when the Russian president sees the need to do so," he added.

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