MINSK – Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels reached a cease-fire agreement on Friday, the first step toward ending fighting in eastern Ukraine that has caused the worst standoff between Moscow and the West since the Cold War ended.
The cease-fire deal was struck in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, along with a deal allowing for prisoner exchanges, deliveries of humanitarian aid and the withdrawal of heavy weapons after five months of conflict that has killed more than 2,600 people.
Despite some initial shelling in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk after the truce began at 6 p.m., the cease-fire appeared to be holding. But many residents and combatants were skeptical that the cease-fire could last long or provide the basis for a durable peace settlement. The two sides remain far apart on the future of the region.
Despite the deal, the European Union slapped new economic sanctions on Russia, the latest in a series of measures aimed at punishing Moscow over Ukraine. But the EU said the sanctions could be suspended if Russia withdraws its troops from Ukraine and observes the cease-fire. A senior EU diplomat said implementation is expected on Monday.
Some provisions will make it harder for Russian state-owned firms to raise finance in the EU. Diplomats expect them to hit, among others, the oil company Rosneft and units of Gazprom, though not the gas firm itself, a main supplier to the EU.
“Human life is the highest value. We must do everything possible and impossible to end the bloodshed and put an end to people’s suffering,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement announcing the truce, which was reached with representatives of Russia and the OSCE security watchdog.
The Kremlin welcomed the agreement, which was based largely on proposals made by President Vladimir Putin and left the pro-Russian separatists in control of vast swaths of territory.
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, urged the sides to build on the deal and seek a permanent political settlement, although many problems remain and a June cease-fire lasted only 10 days.
At a NATO summit in Wales, U.S. President Barack Obama, who accuses Russia of arming the rebels and sending in troops to back them, reacted with skepticism to the deal.
“With respect to the cease-fire agreement, obviously we are hopeful, but based on past experience also skeptical that in fact the separatists will follow through and the Russians will stop violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. So it has to be tested,” Obama told a news conference. “We also sent a strong message to Russia that actions have consequences. Today the United States and Europe are finalizing measures to deepen and broaden our sanctions across Russia’s financial, energy and defense sectors.”
The agreement among the European Union countries expanded the package of sanctions against Russia to measures related to access to capital markets, defense, dual-use goods with both military and civilian applications, and sensitive technology. A further 24 people were added to a list of those barred from entry to the bloc and whose assets in the EU are frozen.
Also attending the NATO summit, Poroshenko told reporters Ukraine was ready to grant a significant decentralization of power and economic freedom to the regions as well as the right to use the language of their choice and an amnesty.
A senior rebel leader said separatists still want a formal split for their mainly Russian-speaking regions. “The cease-fire does not mean the end of (our) policy to split (from Ukraine),” Igor Plotnitsky, a leader of the Luhansk region, told reporters.
NATO also sent a firm message to Russia by approving wide-ranging plans to boost its defenses in Eastern Europe, aiming to reassure allies who are nervous about Russia’s intervention in Ukraine that the U.S.-led alliance will shield them from any attack.
The plan includes creating a “spearhead” rapid reaction force and pre-positioning supplies and equipment in Eastern European countries so they can be reinforced within days in a crisis.
Minutes after the cease-fire began, three blasts were heard north of Donetsk, followed by scattered mortar and artillery fire, but the area later fell quiet. The cease-fire allowed people to emerge from cellars where they have been taking shelter.
“We went out for a walk after three days of hiding, and this is a huge relief,” said Lesya, 30, carrying her newborn boy in Mariupol. “But I am not optimistic. We have already seen so many broken cease-fires.”
Hopes that the cease-fire will hold were also clouded by Western suspicions that Putin had unveiled a seven-point peace plan this past week merely to dupe NATO’s leaders and avert new sanctions being considered by the European Union over the crisis.
Fighting began in eastern Ukraine in mid-April after Russia annexed Crimea following the removal of a Ukrainian president sympathetic to Moscow and a policy shift by Kiev toward the EU.
By pushing for a cease-fire this past week, Poroshenko changed his position after the tide turned in the conflict and Ukrainian troops were beaten back by a resurgent rebel force that the West says has received military support from Russia.
Moscow denies arming the rebels or sending in Russian troops, but Poroshenko appears worried he cannot now defeat the rebels and needs time to tackle a growing economic crisis and prepare for a parliamentary election. It is a risky move.
“If he goes for a peace plan, then all these dead and wounded and exiled and all the homes burned and jobs lost and money lost, it was all for nothing,” said a Ukrainian soldier, who gave his name only as Mykola.
Putin for the first time this past week put his name to a concrete peace plan, proposing seven steps that would leave rebels in control of territory that is home to about one-tenth of Ukraine’s population and an even larger share of its industry. It would also require Ukraine to remain unaligned.
Although the Kremlin leader may not have secured all his goals, he had reason to secure a settlement because of the growing impact of sanctions on Russia’s stuttering economy.
Public support for Putin is high because of the seizure of Crimea, a Russian territory until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine 70 years ago. But this could change if the conflict drags on and many Russians are killed.
Putin’s key goals appear now to be to ensure that Ukraine, a country of more than 40 million where Moscow has long had major influence, does not join NATO and that the eastern regions of Ukraine win much more autonomy.
Although Poroshenko still calls for Crimea to be part of Ukraine, there is little chance of Russia giving it up. Moscow can also hope to maintain influence in eastern Ukraine if a peace deal seals the rebels’ territorial gains, creating a “frozen conflict” that ensures Ukraine is hard to govern.
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