Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebels today (9 May) commemorated the former Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany by parading tanks and other heavy weapons banned under a fragile truce.
The eastern insurgents’ de facto capital of Donetsk saw more than 10,000 people swarm along the main street of the shattered industrial hub to remember the victims of what Russia calls The Great Patriotic War.
The industrial hub – home to nearly one million before the revolt against the pro-Western leadership in Kiev erupted two years ago – was awash in the orange and black ribbons adopted as a symbol of patriotism in Russia.
“I promise that we will win. We will persevere and win,” Donetsk separatist chief Aleksander Zakharchenko declared after modern tanks and Russian-made Grad multiple-rocket launcher systems rumbled past a seated group of decorated war veterans.
One Katyusha rocket launcher used during World War II was engraved with a sign reading “For Stalin” – the Soviet dictator who has gained hero status among some insurgents and whose portraits are increasingly visible in Russia itself.
Donetsk runs along the 30-kilometre-wide buffer zone that splits the two sides’ forces and was meant to have been free of large weapons under a repeatedly-broken peace agreement signed in February 2015.
Russia denies backing the militias but often refers to Ukrainian leaders who toppled the former Soviet republic’s pro-Moscow president in February 2014 as “fascists” who staged an illegal coup.
That month’s pro-EU revolution was followed several weeks later by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the April 2014 outbreak of a conflict that has claimed more than 9,300 lives and tattered Moscow’s relations with the West.
Germany and France are spearheading efforts to end the fighting by creating conditions for separatist elections that could grant the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk regions limited autonomy within a unified Ukraine.
But Ukraine insists that no such vote can be held until it regains portions of its eastern border with Russia that are now under rebel control and allegedly being used to smuggle in new supplies of weapons and forces into the war zone.
The West should stick to its sanction policy towards Russia, following numerous ceasefire violations by Moscow-supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, according to several high-profile officials who spoke in Kyiv yesterday (2 March).
Moscow itself has tried to distance itself from the conflict by insisting that peace terms should be arranged between Kiev and the rebels themselves.
Some participants in the rally said they felt safer thanks to the insurgents’ show of force.
“For Donetsk, this is a great, holy day,” said a 74-year-old man who agreed to identify himself only as Nikolai.
“I feel that these guys will be able to protect my homeland,” he told AFP.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) warned ahead of the parade that a display of military equipment would violate the 2015 truce agreement and pose a “threat to people”.
A deal to establish a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine, called the Minsk Protocol, was signed on 5 September 2014. The agreement was drawn-up by the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, which consisted of representatives from Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE.
In the two weeks after the Minsk Protocol was signed, there were frequent violations of the ceasefire by both parties to the conflict. Talks continued in Minsk, and a follow-up to the Minsk Protocol was agreed to on 19 September 2014.
A new package of measures meant to stop fighting in the Donbass, called "Minsk II", was agreed to on 12 February 2015 by the between the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine (the so-called Normandy format), after 17 hour of negotiations.
The four leaders committed to respecting Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, according to a joint declaration.
On 2 March 2015, European leaders said that they agreed that the OSCE needed a broader role as observers of the ceasefire, and weapons removal.
On 2 October 2015, the leaders of the Normandy format admitted that it would take time to organise elections in Ukraine which respect international standards and as a result, the so-called Minsk peace process would run into next year.
The EU placed friendly pressure on Kyiv to deliver on the Minsk agreements. Ukraine’s position is that as long as numerous ceasefire violations by Moscow-supported separatists in eastern Ukraine continue to occur, it is impossible to talk about political decentralisation of Donetsk and Lugansk, and local elections.