Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko rejected a peace plan proposed to him last week by his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on 18 January, according to Russian media. Ukraine is on the agenda of EU foreign ministers who meet in Brussels today (19 January).
Peskov said the plan, contained in a letter sent by Putin on Thursday evening, proposed a ceasefire by both government forces and separatist militiamen in southeastern Ukraine, as well as the withdrawal of heavy artillery by both sides.
“In recent days, Russia has consistently undertaken efforts as an intermediary in regulating the conflict,” Peskov said in comments quoted by the ITAR TASS news agency.
“In particular, on Thursday night a written address was sent by the president of Russia to the president of Ukraine, in which a concrete plan was proposed to both sides in the conflict to withdraw heavy artillery.”
A copy of the letter was published by the Russian television channel NTV. In it, Putin proposed “urgent measures for the cessation of mutual shelling, and also the rapid withdrawal by the sides in the conflict of means of destruction with a calibre higher than 100 mm”.
Ukrainian troops launched a “mass operation” Sunday night, retaking almost all the territory of Donetsk airport in eastern Ukraine lost to separatists in recent weeks, even as thousands gathered in Kyiv for a state-sponsored peace march on Sunday.
The army’s offensive at the airport brought the fighting close to the big industrial city of Donetsk itself, centre of a pro-Russian separatist rebellion.
Residents reported intensified outgoing shelling including from residential areas in central parts of the separatist-held city.
With attempts to restart peace talks stalled, pro-Russian rebels have stepped up attacks in the past week and casualties have mounted, including the deaths of 13 civilians in an attack on a passenger bus, which Kyiv has blamed on the separatists.
The separatists had gained control of new areas of the airport and retaking much of this territory was a symbolic victory for Kyiv, whom rebels have accused of escalating the conflict.
“The decision was taken for a mass operation … We succeeded in almost completely cleaning the territory of the airport, which belongs to the territory of Ukrainian forces as marked by military separation lines,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said in a televised briefing.
Lysenko said the operation had returned the battle lines near the airport to the previous status quo, and that the Ukrainian army had thus not violated the Minsk 12-point peace plan agreed with Russia and separatist leaders last September.
President Petro Poroshenko emphasised the need to fight for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, as he addressed a crowd of several thousand gathered for a peace march in memory of those killed on the passenger bus.
“We will not give away one scrap of Ukrainian land. We will get back the Donbass … and show that a very important aspect of our victory is our unity,” he said.
Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko accused Kyiv of attempting to return to all-out war, blaming the shelling around Donetsk on Ukrainian army troops.
“We’re talking about Kyiv trying to unleash war again,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
Symbol of valour
In Kyiv, the army defenders of the airport are known by the science fiction nickname of ‘cyborgs’, in tribute to what is perceived as their super-human valour.
“Just this past night our ‘cyborgs’ at Donetsk airport demonstrated their courage, patriotism, heroism, as a model for how our country must be defended,” Poroshenko said.
A ceasefire agreed at the talks in Minsk, capital of Belarus, in early September has been regularly violated from the start by both sides, and hopes of de-escalation have diminished in recent days as violence flared after plans for peace talks last week were abandoned.
In Donetsk, residents reported a sharp intensification of fighting.
“It was impossible to sleep – explosions, the walls were shaking. It seemed like they were firing from near the building … The DNR (rebel) army were firing from our district,” 53-year-old advertising executive Alla said by telephone.
Forty-year-old plumber Andrey Tkachenko, who lives in southern district of Donetsk, said the shelling had become noticeably worse in the past 24 hours.
“By now we are able to tell from the sound what’s flying. We’re used to the GRAD missiles, but now something stronger is firing all night and all day,” he said.
The World Health Organisation says more than 4,800 people have been killed in the conflict pitting Kyiv’s forces against separatists whom the West say are supported and armed by Russia.
Despite what Kyiv and the West says is incontrovertible proof, Russia denies its troops are involved or that it is funnelling military equipment to the separatists.
With its runways pitted and cratered, the airport itself, with a multi-storey control tower and extensive outbuildings, has long since ceased to function.
But its hulk, battered by shelling and gunfire, has taken on symbolic value for both sides with government soldiers and separatists hunting each other often at close range in a deadly cat-and-mouse game among the ruins.
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, but the situation has remained volatile.