Rockets killed more than 10 civilians and soldiers deep in Ukrainian government-held territory on Tuesday (10 February) and rebels pushed on with an assault on an army-held rail junction, setbacks that showed Kyiv’s position worsening on the eve of peace talks.
Advances by pro-Russian rebels diminished hopes of a deal when Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany hold a summit in Belarus today (11 February) under a new Franco-German initiative to halt fighting in a war that has killed more than 5,000 people.
Representatives of the Contact Group meeting in Belarus on the Ukraine crisis denied a report by Russia’s TASS news agency that a ceasefire deal had been reached in talks in Minsk. Rebel representative Denis Pushilin told Russian channel Rossiya24 it was too early to talk of any agreements and said the sides were taking a break.
European officials say it is difficult to imagine the rebels agreeing to halt and go back to earlier positions after weeks during which they have been advancing relentlessly.
A Russian source quoted by the state RIA news agency said there were no plans to sign a document to resolve the conflict at the peace talks, and the main subject would be creation of a demilitarised zone.
The war and years of endemic corruption have nearly bankrupted Ukraine, where the currency collapsed last week. Ukraine is negotiating a rescue package with the International Monetary Fund and sources said that could be expanded dramatically to provide as much as $40 billion in aid.
The White House said that US President Barack Obama urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call on Tuesday to agree to a peace deal.
“If Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including by sending troops, weapons, and financing to support the separatists, the costs for Russia will rise,” the White House statement added.
In its statement about the call, the Kremlin said that Putin and Obama highlighted the need for the need for a political solution to the “internal” conflict in Ukraine.
The Kremlin also said the two leaders also noted the necessity to safeguard the rights of inhabitants of all Ukrainian regions, including Russian-speakers in the east.
Rockets crashed into Kramatorsk, some 50 km (30 miles) north of the front, hitting the main headquarters of the Ukrainian military campaign in the east, as well as nearby residential areas. Local officials said at least seven civilians were killed, while 26 civilians and 10 soldiers were wounded. A parliamentary deputy said four soldiers were also killed.
A Reuters photographer saw the body of a woman who had been killed, laid out in light snow where she fell. The tail of a rocket stuck out of a small crater in the ground.
The rebels denied firing on the town, but their apparent ability to strike so far into Ukrainian-held territory will complicate the peace talks that aim to reestablish a ceasefire that the separatists repudiated with a new offensive last month.
At the front in Vuhlehirsk, a small town captured by rebels last week, volleys of artillery crashed in both directions. The rebels are pushing to encircle government forces holding out in nearby Debaltseve, a rail hub that is the main rebel target.
Rebels sounded triumphant and said they had no intention of halting with government troops on the back foot.
“The Debaltseve bubble has been shut firmly. We will not let them out. There is no way they can get out,” said a commander of a reconnaissance unit who identified himself by the nom de guerre of Malysh – “Little One”.
Asked about a ceasefire, Malysh, who said he was a Russian fighter and not a Ukrainian, replied: “We are absolutely against it. They will have time to regroup. We have them now.”
The Kremlin, who the West accuses of sending arms, weapons and soldiers across the frontier to help fight for territory it calls “New Russia”, announced month-long war games on Tuesday involving about 2,000 troops on its side of the border. Russia denies involvement in the fighting in Ukraine.
Paris and Berlin have kept expectations low for their new peace initiative. French President Francois Hollande said the leaders were heading to the talks “with the strong will to succeed, but without being sure that we will be able to do it”.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said simply holding the summit was no guarantee of success and that nothing had been resolved yet.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Wednesday’s talks would be one of the last chances to declare an unconditional ceasefire and withdraw heavy weaponry, proposals that appear to have more appeal to retreating Kyiv than to advancing rebels.
The renewed fighting has brought calls in the West for more pressure against Moscow. Obama is weighing whether to deliver weapons to Kyiv.
He met German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday but announced no decision on weapons, despite several senior officials in his administration coming out last week in favour of sending some arms. European countries oppose sending arms to Kyiv, arguing that would escalate the war, while providing nowhere near enough fire power for the Ukrainians to win it.
Kyiv announced on Tuesday its forces launched a counter-offensive in the southeast to relieve separatist pressure on the port of Mariupol, the biggest city in the rebellious provinces still in government hands. Details could not be confirmed, but it is unlikely to provide much relief on the main battle front where government forces have been steadily pushed back.
On the outskirts of Vuhlehirsk, a rebel reconnaissance unit was busy securing trenches and bunkers that had been abandoned by Ukrainian troops. They scavenged weapons, ammunition, wires for field telephones and even discarded boots, sleeping bags and mats. An armoured rebel column of tanks and trucks approached the newly captured town.
Seven Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and 23 wounded in the past 24 hours, military spokesman Anatoly Stelmakh said before the rocket strike on Kramatorsk.
Speaking in the European Parliament yesterday (10 February), MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, EPP Group's vice chairman (Poland) said:
"If tomorrow’s Minsk II talks of last chance fail to bring credible peace and in the face of naked war of Russia against Ukraine and mountains of lies and broken promises, it will be the ultimate time to reverse the logic of persuasion into the logic of deterrence. The EU has shown angelic patience and indulgence – and the word angelic comes from the name “Angela” – but we have arrived at limits.
“Quantitative and qualitative change in our action is needed because so far we have been doing too little, too late. Enhancing Ukrainian defence capabilities would create incentives for Russia to back down. On the contrary, the Russian military advantage over Ukraine openly invites Russia to continue invasion, as we witnessed. Ukraine has a right to defend itself. We have the responsibility to protect the victims against the aggressor, in the name of our values. If we swerve from our values, we ourselves will be in danger. The crisis over Ukraine is indeed about our own future and our own security. We may wish that there is a diplomatic solution, but a military solution by Russia is taking place before our very eyes.
“In order to achieve a political solution, leverage is needed, to bring the aggressor to true, not Potemkin village type, negotiations and bringing binding and executable results. The time has come to apply reverse logic, increase leverage through pressure, increase Russia’s economic sanctions, closing the military advantage gap on behalf of Russia between invader and victim in order to achieve a peaceful solution at the end”, Saryusz-Wolski concluded.
The crisis in Ukraine erupted after its former President Viktor Yanukovich cancelled plans to sign trade and political pacts with the EU in November 2013 and instead sought closer ties with Russia, triggering protests that turned bloody and drove him from power.
Moscow annexed Crimea in March following a referendum staged after Russian forces established control over the Black Sea peninsula in the biggest East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Pro-Russian militants control buildings in more than ten towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on 6 April. On 11 May, pro-Moscow rebels declared a resounding victory in a referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk, which the West called illegal and illegitimate.
The fighting has escalated sharply after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered on 1 July an assault on separatists. The EU's resolve to punish Russia strengthened after the downing in Ukraine on 17 July of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane, killing all 298 people on board. 194 of the passengers were from the Netherlands.
Western leaders say pro-Russian rebels almost certainly shot the airliner down by mistake with a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile. Moscow has blamed Kyiv for the tragedy.
On 27 August, NATO and the U.S. said Russian incursions into Ukraine took an ‘overt and obvious form’ and on 28 August Poroshenko said Russia had invaded Ukraine.
A truce was agreed on 5 September 2014, but the situation has remained volatile.
- 11 February: Vladimir Putin, Petro Poroshenko, François Hollande and Angela Merkel due to meet in Minsk
- 12 February: EU summit in Brussels