Confusion reigned on September 3 over hopes for a ceasefire in Ukraine, as President Petro Poroshenko announced on Twitter in the morning that he had reached a ceasefire agreement following a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, though Russian officials later denied the initial wording by Poroshenko and subsquent statements by the Ukrainian president were amended.
The Ukrainian language tweet said that “as a result of a telephone call with the president of Russia, agreement has been reached on a permanent ceasefire in Donbass. Glory to Ukraine!” This tweet from Poroshenko came strangely only minutes after he had tweeted his family’s acceptance of the so-called “ice bucket challenge”, where celebrities have a bucket of cold water poured over them themselves in support of charity.
The strangeness continued when the initial Ukrainian language website announcement of the ceasefire – but not the tweet – was later significantly amended, raising questions as to what, if anything, had been agreed upon.
Poroshenko’s initial website post said that he and President Putin had talked on the phone and the “conversation resulted in an agreement on a permanent ceasefire”. But half an hour later the text of the announcement was amended, replacing “permanent ceasefire” with simply “a ceasefire regime”.The header of both first and second website posts referred to a “complete ceasefire”.
Things became even less clear when Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, criticised the wording(s) of Poroshenko’s announcement(s), saying that no agreement as such had been reached between Putin and Poroshenko, “because Russia is not a party to the Ukrainian conflict”, as reported by RIA Novosti. Peskov’s words seemed consistent with the Kremlin’s oft-stated position that it is not a party to the conflict in East Ukraine, and that Kyiv can only negotiate a ceasefire with the rebels themselves, which Kyiv is reluctant to do.
The sticking point appears to be that Ukraine, while agreeing to a ceasefire after a serious military defeat at the end of August, is simultaneously trying to establish linkage between Russia and the pro-Russian rebels fighting in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine: Ukrainian media quoted a government source as saying that the ceasefire deal as originally stated “implies Russian responsibility for the rebels”. The Kremlin had earlier conceded that talks between Putin and Poroshenko were progressing. Prior to Poroshenko’s announcement, the Kremlin press service reported that “the two heads of state have exchanged thoughts about the first steps needed to be taken for a swift end to the bloodshed”, and noted that the two presidents’ ideas overlap “to a significant degree”.
Putin, who is currently on a visit to Mongolia, then later outlined to news agency Itar Tass by phone Russia’s seven point plan towards regulating the conflict in Donbass and said that Poroshenko and he agree on “most” issues. Putin also told journalists that he hoped implementation of the plan could start on September 5 when talks between Russia, Ukraine and EU leaders resume in Minsk, Belarus.
As outlined to Itar Tass, the seven points of Putin’s plan are: first, for the rebels in Luhansk and Donetsk to cease attacking Ukrainian positions; second, for all Ukrainian forces to withdraw artillery and rocket systems out of range of the civilian population; third, complete and objective international control and monitoring of a ceasefire; fourth, ending the use of aviation against civilians; fifth, opening of humanitarian relief corridors; sixth, exchange of all prisoners without any prior conditions; and seventh, dispatching brigades of repair workers to start reconstruction work on destroyed infrastructure.
However, even if Poroshenko agrees to Putin’s plan, the Russian-backed Donbass rebels themselves may not, in particular the second point regarding withdrawal of Ukrainian forces out of range of the civilian population. Self-styled deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR), Vassily Purgin, told RIA Novosti that, “this decision [the ceasefire] was taken without us”, and the ceasefire is “invalid while [Ukraine] armed forces remain on the territory of the [Donetsk People’s] republic. Our condition for a ceasefire remains the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from the territory of the DNR.”
Says Otilia Dhand of Teneo Intelligence, “Regardless of whether such a deal was agreed, the lack of clear chains of command on both sides and the likely popular backlash in Kyiv mean that any kind of agreement could easily fail even before it is supposed to come into effect. The contradictory announcements around the ceasefire might also undermine Poroshenko’s standing vis-à-vis Putin, with potential negative implications for his popularity at home.”
Rebels in Donetsk questioned by bne had not heard anything about a ceasefire agreement and had mixed feelings. “We are nonetheless going to drive the Ukrainian forces out and back all the way to Kyiv,” a member of the Vostok battalion, who declined to provide a name, told bne. He nevertheless called the mooted ceasefire agreement a “small victory” for the rebels, and said that his men would observe it if it happened.
The rebels practicing assembling and disassembling machine guns at a base on Donetsk’s Kuibishev Street 44 had also heard nothing of a ceasefire. “Putin can’t decide this for us anyway,” said a senior officer, who refused to give his name.
In fact, ceasefire or no ceasefire, in the city of Donetsk since the start of the week, thing have got a lot quieter, say locals, with far less shelling in recent weeks as Ukrainian forces moved in and around the city. Bearing witness to the intensity and inaccuracy of the shelling over the previous weeks, buildings on both sides of the rebels’ base on Kuibishev had been shelled – one of them a senior school – but not the base itself.
Ukrainian forces found themselves encircled in August 24-30 during an advance on Donetsk via the town of Ilovaisk, apparently by regular Russian forces encroaching into Ukraine across the border. Since then, the Ukrainian forces have been pulling back from Donetsk, and the shelling of the city has died down, with streets visibly fuller on September 3 than during August, although there have also been reports of rocket fire hitting Donetsk airport.
The same process is observable in Luhansk region, with eyewitnesses questioned by bne describing whole columns of tanks and artillery moving northward from the city. As a result, shelling in the town has largely stopped. On the other hand, rebels, with Russian backing, have been seeking to push home their new advantage and are turning artillery fire against the town of Schastye, some 10 kilometres north of Luhansk, and home to a large concentration of Ukrainian forces. Some reports speak of Russian air strikes against Ukrainian positions around the town, but this could not be independently confirmed.
In the Ukrainian-held town of Volnavakha, halfway between Donetsk and the coastal city of Mariupol, there was relief at the news of the ceasefire. Volnovakha, close to the front line, was only on September 2 readying for an attack by the advancing Russian-backed rebels, with the town’s one supermarket suddenly closing, Ukrainian sappers apparently mining bridges leading into town across the Donetsk-Mariuopol highway, and Ukrainian artillery and tanks appearing in the surrounding countryside. “Thank God,” said a local police officer, hearing of the ceasefire reports. “It is only a half hour’s drive from Starobeshovo [scene of some of the fiercest fighting] to here. But does anyone really control the hotheads who race around in jeeps?” he queried, referring to irregular forces on both sides.
“We’re compeletly in favour [of a ceasefire],” said a member of special police unit Berkut manning an armoured personnel carrier flying the Ukrainian flag in Volnakhava. Asked whether the ceasefire might imply defeat for Ukraine in the war he replied “only time will tell.”