Ukraine Engulfed by Violence in East Before Truce Set to Begin

Ukraine Crisis

A battle for control of the government-held flashpoint of Debaltseve unleashed fierce fighting with pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine just hours before a cease-fire was supposed to go into effect at midnight.

Combatants on both sides vowed to abide by the accord signed Thursday in the Belarus capital even as violence raged, with the authorities in Kiev saying rebels were bearing down on the strategic transport hub of Debaltseve. The insurgents blamed the Ukrainian army for striking their positions and towns across the breakaway Donetsk region.

The escalation is shaking the deal brokered by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France during all-night negotiations in Minsk. Similar agreements have previously failed to defuse the almost one-year crisis that’s killed more than 5,400 people. The cease-fire is set to start overnight Saturday to Sunday at midnight Kiev time.

“The Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces may not settle for anything less than what they consider victory,” Balazs Jarabik, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a report. “Questions remain about the feasibility of a cease-fire, and the will of Russian, Ukrainian, and separatist leaders to implement the mechanisms necessary to resolve the conflict.”

The peace accord reaffirms some commitments from a failed September bid to end the conflict that has devastated eastern Ukraine. Other commitments include a removal of heavy weapons to start no later than the second day after the truce and end within two weeks, to be overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Last Push

As separatists and government forces made the last push to maximize territory under their control, President Petro Poroshenko warned that Ukraine will impose martial law if peace doesn’t take hold.

“We are dealing with an insidious and cynical enemy,” Poroshenko said outside Kiev Saturday. “We are still hoping that common sense will prevail over unhealthy imperial ambitions and expect those who once gave the command to start fighting will finally order the shooting to stop at midnight.”

The mounting doubts over the viability of the truce were reflected in Ukraine’s foreign debt. The country’s benchmark dollar-denominated bonds maturing July 2017 closed 2.4 cents lower at 54.2 cents on Friday, ending a seven-day rally. Russian markets showed signs of optimism that the country will be able to avert tougher sanctions, with stocks and bonds extending a second week of gains and the ruble strengthening.

Death Toll

Separatist forces, backed by Russian regular troops, were on an offensive to seize more territory before midnight, Andriy Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said Saturday. Seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 23 wounded in the past 24 hours, with another death reported near Mariupol.

For a second day, rockets struck the government-held town of Artemivsk, which is located about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the front line, according to local police. In total, government positions endured 100 rebel attack on Saturday, said a spokesman for the Ukrainian military.

Four civilians were killed during the past day in rebel-controlled areas as towns and separatist positions came under dozens of attacks by Ukrainian forces, according to Eduard Basurin, a Defense Ministry official from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. Another three people died Saturday and 12 were wounded when the center of Donetsk came under shelling, according to local authorities.

Attacks Escalate

U.S. intelligence and military officials remain convinced that even if the cease-fire takes hold Sunday, the separatist offensive will resume at some point and continue at least until Debaltseve and Mariupol are under de facto Russian control.

The railroad hub, the officials said Saturday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments, is a vital link between Donetsk and Luhansk, and the port city is the last major obstacle to opening a land route between Russia and Crimea.

Debaltseve remained in the crosshairs of rebel assaults, according to Ukraine’s military. The town and its environs were repeatedly attacked using artillery and tanks, with separatists also shelling areas near the Sea of Azov port of Mariupol, the National Security and Defense Council said Saturday. Fourteen civilians were killed in the conflict zone on Friday, it said.

Obama, Merkel

Poroshenko spoke by phone with U.S. President Barack Obama and held separate talks Saturday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, two of the brokers of the Minsk deal. The leaders expressed concern over the showdown in Debaltseve, according to statements on the Ukrainian president’s website. Obama and Poroshenko agreed to coordinate efforts should the conflict escalate.

Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the self-declared Donetsk Republic, signed a decree ordering his forces to observe the truce tonight while allowing them to respond to any attack by government troops. The truce will be monitored jointly with the OSCE, according to the decree published Saturday.

Separatist forces in the nearby region of Luhansk also received orders to cease fire, according to Interfax. Government troops will honor the truce, Poroshenko said.

Even so, disagreements emerged over the fate of Debaltseve, a pocket of government-held territory inside areas controlled by separatists. The rebels demanded the surrender of Ukrainian forces fighting there and said they seized parts of the town and nearby areas.

‘Our Enemy’

“Why should we let them out? We are giving them the chance to stay alive -- this is our enemy, who came onto our land,” Basurin said. “Yes, we will carry out our commitments, but if the enemy advances in our direction, they will be repulsed as needed.”

As tensions persisted on the ground, European Union leaders started to draw up further sanctions to prod Russia to enforce the truce, while the U.S. accused Russia of continuing to funnel weapons to insurgents this week.

More than 10,000 Russian troops are in the country, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Petro Mekhed told reporters in Kiev.

Ukraine, the U.S., the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization say Russia is supporting the separatists with hardware, cash and troops -- accusations the Kremlin denies. Russia says Ukraine is waging war on its own citizens and discriminates against Russian speakers, a majority in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The U.S. is “very concerned” about the continued fighting, particularly in light of additional Russian military assistance to separatists “in the past few days,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday. Russia’s military also has air-defense systems deployed near Debaltseve, she said.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov denied the claim, which he said was as reliable as “reading tea leaves,” Interfax reported.

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