What’s going on in eastern Ukraine? Is there peace or are they still shooting?
For what seemed like the longest time, the situation is eastern Ukraine was page-one news all over the world. With the February ceasefire, that’s ended, and questions about the Minsk Agreement’s actual implementation haven’t maintained the public’s interest as well as earlier reports from an active war zone. While you weren’t looking, Meduza was monitoring events in Donetsk and Luhansk over the past few weeks (since the rebels took Debaltseve), and now presents a summary, in ten short paragraphs, of what’s been going on.
Despite the truce, not a day goes by without mutual accusations of violating the “ceasefire regime.” Sometimes there’s talk of dozens of violations in a single day, and other times there are only a few incidents. One of the most serious violations occurred on March 16, when, according to separatists in Donetsk, a tank from the Ukrainian armed forces fired on a rebel truck and killed two people. In turn, Kiev says separatists killed one person. According to Reuters, these were the first casualties since March 11.
Both sides suspect each other of preparing a new offensive. In Mariupol, for example, Ukrainian forces have begun to fortify the coastline in anticipation of an amphibious assault. Separatist officials in Donetsk say such accusations of a planned offensive are a “provocation.” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko makes no secret that he’s trying to strengthen the army’s combat potential, though he still emphasizes that he intends to comply with the terms of the Minsk Agreement.
The OSCE mission in eastern Ukraine has officially been extended until March 2016. If necessary, it could be expanded, too (possibly doubling the 500-person-strong monitoring team now in place). Both sides have voiced dissatisfaction with the actions of the OSCE in Ukraine.
Ukraine has even proposed welcoming UN peacekeepers to the region, though the Minsk Agreement includes no language about peacekeepers. Kiev first signaled its interest in UN “blue helmets” in late February, sending a preliminary appeal to the UN on March 13. Two days later, Poroshenko introduced a draft resolution to the parliament on appealing to the UN Security Council and the Council of the European Union for international peacekeepers. Both the Kremlin and the separatist leadership say they are opposed to introducing peacekeepers, pointing out that the Minsk Agreement says nothing about them. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said the talk about peacekeepers is an attempt to divert attention from Ukraine’s domestic problems.
Withdrawing heavy weapons and exchanging POWs
In recent weeks, separatist officials from Donetsk and Luhansk have consistently stated that they’ve already withdrawn their heavy weapons (classified as multiple rocket launchers and artillery with calibers bigger than 100mm) to the distance from the front lines stipulated in the Minsk Agreement. Kiev says the rebels are only "simulating a withdrawal”; the Ukrainian military believes they are only moving their weapons from place to place, without really removing them as required.
Ukraine’s own armed forces say they’ve partly withdrawn their weapons according to the Minsk Agreement, but they the removal is incomplete. Separatists in Luhansk confirm that Kiev appears to have withdrawn as much as 80 percent of its heavy weapons, though they say the remaining arsenal is Ukraine’s newest, most effective weaponry.
The status of the POW exchange is even more confusing. Initially, the swap was supposed to take place on an “all-for-all” basis, but that hasn’t happened. Ukraine and the separatists offer different figures. According to the Ukrainian Security Service, the separatists have released 2,483 people in exchange for 1,553. The rebels in Donetsk, meanwhile, say they’ve only turned over to Kiev 577 POWs.
Settling the special status of Donetsk and Luhansk
Under the terms of the Minsk Agreement, Ukraine promised to provide the "separate areas" of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (that is, the two separatist enclaves) with "special status.” Poroshenko sent the parliament draft legislation to implement these reforms only after accusations that he was deliberately stalling. It wasn’t until March 16 that the public learned about Poroshenko’s plan to hold new local elections in Donetsk and Luhansk under the supervision of the OSCE.
Poroshenko’s plan for new elections is fraught with potential problems, the most contentious of which will be how exactly he demarcates the territory that will receive “special status.” This won’t be the first time Kiev has proposed elections in the rebel-controlled areas: there was a similar offer in September 2014. In the past several months, however, the separatists have seized significantly more territory, including the recent capture of Debaltseve. It’s also noteworthy that Poroshenko didn’t consult at all with the rebel leaders, when drawing up the new reform plan.
Back to normal?
With the truce in effect, the separatist areas and the rest of Ukraine have restored many of the ties that were severed during the recent fighting. Donetsk is shipping coal west once more (and getting paid in hryvnia); the trains are running to-and-fro again; and schools in Luhansk near the front line are back in session.
Separatists in Donetsk have also made several economic demands of Kiev. Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the Donetsk People’s Republic, says his government is owed $4.5 billion, including pension payments, public sector wages, and disability payments. Rebels say Kiev owes the city of Donetsk alone more than 380 million hryvnia (more than $17 million). While Ukrainian officials have refused to comment on these figures, it’s safe to assume there’s no check in the mail. Even if Kiev wanted to pay reparations (an unlikely prospect), Ukraine’s budget simply couldn’t spare it.