bne IntelliNews -
After a marathon negotiating session that lasted 17 hours, Russia, Ukraine and the EU have thrashed out the framework for a partial peace deal to bring the fighting in the east of Ukraine to an end, the various parties announced February 12.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a brief statement, after what has been dubbed the "Duracell summit" in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, that a ceasefire would come into effect at midnight on Sunday, February 15, when both the Ukrainian army and the pro-Russia separatists must withdraw their heavy weapons.
"I would ask conflicting parties to stop the bloodshed at the earliest possible date and start a political process," Putin said in a brief statement to the press after the meeting broke up.
French President Francois Hollande was reported by newswires as saying that a full peace deal had been reached; German Chancellor Angela Merkel was yet to speak to the press
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose brief handshake with Putin and glaring showed the extreme tension hanging over these difficult talks, confirmed that all foreign troops, mercenaries and regular army were going to be pulled back from the conflict line as of the beginning of the ceasefire on February 15. A 50-kilometre demilitarized zone that includes a 70-140km no-rocket zone between the two sides will be imposed, according to reports.
Putin also said that there would be "constitutional reform for the rights of the people in Donbas", which suggests strongly that Putin has won some concessions for his demand for the federalisation of Ukraine. Moscow wants the eastern part of Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have fought a bloody war for almost a year, to be granted more autonomy from the pro-European west of the country.
Poroshenko also made a few comments to journalists in the Belarusian presidential palace. He confirmed that Ukraine would decentralise some powers to the Donbas region, but added that there would be no federalisation or autonomy for the region.
That suggests the two sides are still some way apart on this. From the scanty details available, it seems that the two sides failed to agree on several other key issues.
One of the biggest disagreements has been over the military position of the two sides. Putin said that Kyiv was refusing to talk directly to the rebel leaders from Donbas who attended the summit. He also said that there was disagreement over the fate of some Ukrainian forces that have reportedly been encircled in the town of Debaltseve. Rebel leaders claim that Poroshenko had been misled by his commanders into believing that the Ukrainian forces are not in trouble.
Clearly this caused a clash in the talks, as Putin said in his statement that experts would be sent to determine "what the situation on the ground is."
The military situation will be very important, because neither side will want to give up any gains they have made since the last ceasefire came into effect in September and subsequently broke down. The crucial question is whether the rebel structures will sign up to the deal and the ceasefire actually hold on the ground,
Alexander Zakharchenko and Ihor Plotnitsky, leaders of the two self-proclaimed breakaway East Ukraine republics – the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) – were reported to have refused to co-sign the agreement in Minsk, due to the situation in Debaltseve, where the rebels claim they have encircled Ukrainian forces forming a 'pocket'. Reuters reported that the rebels were demanding a Ukrainian withdraw from Debaltseve.
"Poroshenko is still being misled by reports that [the Ukrainian army] is doing well in the Debaltseve pocket," Denys Pushylin, the DPR's chief negotiator, tweeted on February 12.
While the rebels claim to have cut off Ukrainian forces in the railway town, the easternmost town held by Ukraine, on February 11 Ukraine's defence minister, Stepan Poltarak, disputed this, saying that Ukrainian reinforcements were still getting through. Other sources said that the Ukrainian forces were well dug in, having buried whole trains that are now being used as bunkers.
Some Ukrainian frontline commentators dispute this. “[Army head] Viktor Muzhenko continues to report false information to the commander-in-chief [Poroshenko]... although everyone knows that the enemy retains control over the road [westward from Debaltseve],” frontline commentator and journalist Yury Butusov wrote on Facebook on February 12. “The lack of supplies is already seriously limiting the tactical options for the Ukrainian forces – noticeably lowering the activity of our artillery [located] within the blockade.”
Another point of contention on the ground is around the Ukrainian-held port of Mariupol, where Ukraine's irregular Azov battalion reported heavy fighting on the morning of February 12.
Merkel and Hollande will leave Minsk to fly directly to Brussels for an EU summit, which was delayed until after the Minsk summit broke up.
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