Fighting Strains Ukraine Truce; Russia Criticizes EU BlacklistDaryna Krasnolutska, Mark Raczkiewycz and Kateryna Choursina
A fragile cease-fire in Ukraine between government troops and pro-Russian rebels came under strain as Russia criticized the European Union for expanding its sanctions list over the conflict.
Five government troops were killed and 25 wounded in battles near the strategic port city of Mariupol, the first deaths reported since the truce began on Feb. 15, and fighting continues in the area at Shyrokyne, Ukrainian military spokesman Dmytro Chalyi said by phone on Monday. Conditions “don’t yet exist” for separatist forces to withdraw their heavy weaponry from the conflict zone, rebel spokesman Eduard Basurin said, according to the Interfax news service.
“This is a very difficult path,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin. The cease-fire is “fragile” and “it was always very, very clear that there’s a lot to do” to secure a truce.
Both sides in the conflict accused each other of violating the cease-fire brokered in the Belarus capital, Minsk, by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. Similar agreements have failed to defuse the almost one-year crisis that’s killed more than 5,600 people, according to the United Nations, and led to the most serious confrontation between Russia and the U.S. and the EU since the Cold War.
The EU extended a blacklist to another 19 people and nine entities. Russia called the move “ridiculous” after the peace deal signed last week.
“Every time hope appears for a resolution of the Ukrainian conflict, Brussels hurries to introduce new anti-Russian restrictions,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website.
The four leaders plan to hold a phone conversation today and Russia still hopes the Minsk agreement will be fulfilled, Kremlin presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said on Monday, according to Interfax. The new EU sanctions are illegal and “hamper the development of relations” with Russia, he said.
Russian First Deputy Defense Minister Arkady Bakhin and Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov are among those added to the EU’s blacklist, which the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said will receive an “appropriate reaction.” There are now 151 individuals under travel bans and asset freezes, while 37 entities are also under sanctions.
Markets were mixed. Ukraine’s foreign-currency bonds fell as the government said it was looking to restructure its debt by June and the cease-fire showed signs of strain. Ukraine’s $1.25 billion of bonds maturing April 2023 fell 0.55 cent to 51.09 cents on the dollar by 6:11 p.m. in Kiev, extending a 2.4-cent drop on Feb. 13. The hryvnia weakened 1.1 percent, after declining 3.3 percent last week.
The ruble strengthened 0.5 percent against the dollar and Russian government ruble bonds advanced for a fourth day as oil traded above $60 a barrel.
The cease-fire is being observed, “generally speaking,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin on Monday. Pockets of fighting are “of concern,” such as around the town of Debaltseve, a key rail junction on the road between the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the OSCE must assess the situation in the town, Seibert said.
The separatists don’t allow monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to inspect the area around Debaltseve, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev on Monday. Rebels have fired 129 times at Ukrainian troops since the truce began and the attacks prevent government forces from withdrawing heavy weapons, he said.
The Minsk agreement signed by Ukrainian and rebel representatives requires both sides to begin withdrawing heavy weaponry behind a buffer zone from the second day after the cease-fire and to complete the pullback within 14 days.
Rebel attacks on Debaltseve are more intense than before the cease-fire, though government forces are “managing” the situation, Ukrainian military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov told reporters in Kiev on Monday.
As many as 5,000 people are trapped in the town and hiding in basements “as there are explosions all the time,” Natalia Karabuta, the head of Debaltseve’s health department, said by phone. “People are left without bread and water. Debaltseve’s hospital was hit, so it doesn’t take patients. Doctors are also hiding in basements.”
Ukrainian forces broke the cease-fire 27 times in the past day, Basurin said, according to the separatist-run DAN news service. Ukrainian artillery also fired at rebel-held Donetsk airport on Monday, DAN reported, citing its own correspondent.
Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed implementation of the Minsk agreement at a meeting of Russia’s Security Council on Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to Interfax.
“The Minsk accords were another step toward peace but everything depends on Russia and whether our western allies will be able to restrain Russia,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in an interview Sunday on television channel 1+1. “Peace can be reached and can be guaranteed only when Ukraine can defend itself.”
NATO is offering Ukraine “practical support” in its military reform, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with Russia’s Kommersant newspaper published Monday. The military alliance doesn’t have weapons to provide to Ukraine and any decision on sending arms is a matter for individual member states, he told Kommersant.
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.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Sunday discussed the implementation of the cease-fire by phone with Putin, Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. Their “common position” is that the truce should extend across the entire line of contact, including the area of Debaltseve, according to a statement issued by Poroshenko’s office.
The head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, has said that the cease-fire won’t extend to the area. All Ukrainian troops pinned down in Debaltseve must lay down their arms and abandon the town, Zakharchenko said Sunday in a statement carried by DAN.