Reports Come Two Days After Kiev Agrees to Cease-Fire With Separatists
Fighting in at least two cities in eastern Ukraine called into question a cease-fire that Kiev and pro-Russia rebels agreed upon Friday, even as the pact brought a respite from weeks of deadly violence to many towns in the embattled Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Explosions and shooting during the day Sunday rattled the area near the destroyed Donetsk airport, which Ukrainian forces have struggled to hold for months. There were also reports of fighting overnight from Saturday to Sunday at a checkpoint outside Mariupol, a critical port city in the Donetsk region still in Kiev’s hands that had been bracing for a rebel attack.
The local administration in Mariupol issued a statement on Sunday saying a woman from the city had been killed and three others injured since the peace deal was struck.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council confirmed the fighting near Donetsk and Mariupol and said it did violate of the cease-fire agreement, but he added that the peace deal remained in place.
“We are not talking about the cancellation of the regime of the cease-fire,” Volodymyr Polyovyi said at a briefing in Kiev on Sunday. He said he couldn’t confirm any civilian casualties following the cease-fire declaration.
There was no immediate official reaction to the reports of fighting from either president in Kiev or Moscow. The Kremlin and Kiev issued two separate statements Saturday saying that President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, had spoken by phone and agreed that the cease-fire was largely holding.
The terms of the deal agreed to on Friday largely followed an outline laid out earlier in the week by Mr. Putin after talks with Mr. Poroshenko. Kiev’s negotiating position had been substantially weakened in the past few weeks after what Western officials described as a Russian incursion crossed the border to support the rebels, helping reverse months of gains by Kiev’s forces on the battlefield and leaving them on the brink of defeat.
Both Moscow and Kiev benefit by continuing to say the cease-fire holds. This allows Mr. Poroshenko to say his country will remain whole according to the conditions of the current cease-fire protocol, and to regroup after a demoralizing battlefield defeat.
For Mr. Putin the peace deal represents a major political win. It means leverage over Kiev’s future, including its European ambitions, via the establishment of a Russia-backed autonomous region within Ukraine. If the rebel region remains part of Ukraine, albeit with more powers of self-governance, rather than a de facto, unrecognized statelet reliant on Russia, Kiev rather than Moscow would be likely to foot the bill for reconstruction.
Closer to the battle front, Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, suggested peace talks with Ukrainian officials in the Belarusian capital of Minsk were proceeding.
“As far as I understand, the Ukrainian armed forces weren’t fully notified about the cease-fire,” Mr. Zakharchenko told the Russian news outlet LifeNews. “They’re shooting day and night, around the city. In this regard, a compromise wasn’t reached.”
But the rebel leader said talks with Ukrainian officials in the Belarusian capital of Minsk were proceeding.
“They have started to take us seriously as a party in this conflict, and they’ve started to sit down at the negotiation table with us,” Mr. Zakharchenko told the Russian news outlet LifeNews. He said the sides had agreed upon some sort of special status for the rebel republics and said the details would depend “on how we negotiate.” He told a separate Russian news outlet that the rebel delegation expected to return for a new round of talks in about a week.
Despite the reports of cease-fire violations on Sunday, people started to re-emerge onto the streets in near-empty towns where just days ago residents were confined to their basements.
In Zugrez, a city east of Donetsk where fighting had stopped in recent days, shuttle buses were functioning, and people were walking around town. A car towing a crate of watermelons sped through the main thoroughfare to make a delivery. Still, the streets remained mainly empty, with almost all stores closed.
A woman in her 20s sat knitting inside the local gas station even though neither fuel nor products had been available for days. She said she was just keeping watch, and noted that most residents were hopeful for peace but worried the cease-fire wouldn’t last.
“Everyone has doubts,” she said, as she threaded her knitting needles through the yarn.
Even on the outskirts of neighboring Shakhtarsk, where heavy fighting had left residents in their basements for days without electricity, people were out cycling on the street. Still, just outside the city, two rebel tanks were making their way toward Donetsk, where gunfire and explosions continued into the afternoon.
In Makiivka, the city next to Donetsk, residents of one neighborhood where artillery shells fell on Sept. 3 walked around and assessed the damage. Three elderly women sat on a bench outside their Stalin-era apartment building, where a shell blasted out the windows and took off most of the roof. With nowhere else to go, they have continued to live inside.
“We have electricity, we have water, we have gas,” said one of the three women, an elderly lady with black hair wearing a beige T-shirt. “All we need now is a roof.”
She also said she wasn’t sure the cease-fire would last longer than a few days. “Let’s hope it does,” someone said nearby. “From your mouth to God’s ears,” she replied.
But even as a breath of peace swept over many towns, rebel fighters at checkpoints across the Donetsk region guaranteed the cease-fire was bogus, expressing doubts about the trustworthiness of their Ukrainian opponents. They said the cease-fire simply provided an opportunity for both sides to regroup.
A volunteer battalion fighting for Kiev on Sunday posted a photo of an explosion from the previous night of what it alleged was the result of shelling by rebel forces late Saturday outside Mariupol. It said that the troops’ position was hit by Grad rockets but didn’t provide details.
Mr. Polyovyi said the Donetsk airport remained under Ukrainian forces’ control and that the situation in Mariupol was calm, with panic among residents having subsided. Ukrainian forces were reinforcing their positions near the city, he added. Such moves have led to skepticism about the cease-fire among the rebels.
Friday’s agreement didn’t prevent the West from preparing a new series of stricter sanctions against Russia amid skepticism about Mr. Putin’s true intentions. Some Western officials view the deal as a smokescreen for Moscow to send more military aid to regrouping separatists.
Ukraine signed a cease-fire with the pro-Russian rebels on Friday. This could be a real move into ending the five-month conflict. WSJ’s Moscow Bureau Chief Greg White joins Lunch Break’s Tanya Rivero with the details. Photo: Getty
The Kremlin has denied sending any military aid to Ukraine, and top Russian officials have said any Russians fighting in Ukraine were volunteers doing so during their “vacation time.”
Friday’s cease-fire protocol mandated that all mercenaries and illegal armed groups be removed from the territory of Ukraine. It also called for a release of “all hostages and unlawfully detained persons,” as well as a law on amnesty in connection with the conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. No progress on those points appeared to have been made as of Sunday.
The document also agreed that Ukraine would take steps to decentralize government power in the country, including through “a system of temporary local self-governance for certain parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.” How such a system will work, and what boundaries the rebel region will take, remained undecided.