Russia and Ukraine reached a new deal on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, though even the leaders who negotiated it were downbeat about how far the pact would go towards resolving the 10-month old war that has killed upwards of 5,300 people.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko emerged from marathon talks in the Belarusian capital of Minsk to give separate press conferences announcing that a ceasefire would begin at midnight on Feb. 15. If the fighting stops, the next step would be a pullback of heavy artillery two days later by both the Ukrainian army and the Russian-backed rebels who have been fighting to carve out an independent state in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.
The outlines of the deal — which was mediated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande — look similar to another ceasefire signed in Minsk in September. That agreement collapsed almost as soon as it was signed, with both the rebels and the Ukrainian army accusing the other side of violating the terms.
While Mr. Putin was visibly pleased after the talks, the other leaders were more reserved. Ms. Merkel said she was under “no illusion” about what had been achieved and that “big hurdles” remained.
In a statement released from Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said “for some this will not be enough. We also would have wished for more – but this is what the presidents of Ukraine and Russia could agree on.”
Ms. Merkel and Mr. Hollande had pushed the Russian and Ukrainian leaders to end the fighting, amid worries it could spill over into a wider conflict. The United States and Canada are debating sending military aid to Ukraine, a step Ms. Merkel has said could lead to Russia upping its own involvement in the fighting.
News of there fresh deal came hours after Ukraine, which has seen its economy collapse as the war raged in the east, was offered a $40-billion (U.S.) lifeline by the International Monetary Fund.
There were reports that the Minsk deal includes a prisoner swap that would see Moscow release Nadiya Savchenko, a pilot who has been detained in Russia since last June and whose defiance has made her a symbol of Ukraine’s determination to stand up to what many here see as Russian bullying.
“The contact group signed a document that we prepared with a great deal of tension,” Mr. Poroshenko said. “The main thing which has been achieved is that from Saturday into Sunday there should be declared without any conditions at all a general ceasefire.”
Leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk rebels were not involved in the Minsk talks, but reportedly also signed the ceasefire documents on Thursday. Heavy fighting was reported around the region as the Minsk talks went on.
Mr. Poroshenko said the deal included an agreement for all foreign forces to be withdrawn from eastern Ukraine, a clause not mentioned by Mr. Putin in his own remarks. Russia denies allegations by Ukraine and NATO that it has sent heavy weapons, along with thousands of troops, into eastern Ukraine to aid the rebel cause.
Mr. Putin said the deal included a “long-term political settlement” that included political reform in Ukraine, a key Russian demand since the revolution in Kiev last year that ousted the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych from power and paved the way for the rise of the pro-Western Mr. Poroshenko.
“It hasn’t been the best night in my life, but it has been a good morning because we have agreed on many things,” a visibly pleased Mr. Putin said.
“The first thing is constitutional reform, which should take into consideration the legitimate rights of the people who live in Donbass. What follows is border issues, which should be coordinated with the Donbass militias, as well as humanitarian affairs, and implantation of the previously adopted law on special status of Donetsk and Lugansk.”
The September deal gave temporary autonomous status to Donetsk and Lugansk for three years. However, Mr. Putin’s talk of constitutional reform was rejected by Mr. Poroshenko, who said Ukraine would not consent to Moscow’s demand that it be redrawn as a federal state.
Mr. Putin said the talks had dragged on because Mr. Poroshenko refused to speak directly with the rebel leaders in Donetsk and Lugansk.
In brief remarks, Mr. Hollande said the deal represented “serious hope, even if all is not done.”
The summit discussions came as pro-Moscow separatists tightened the pressure on Kiev by launching some of the war’s worst fighting on Wednesday, killing 19 Ukrainian soldiers in assaults near the railway town of Debaltseve.
As the fighting escalated, Washington has begun openly talking of arming Ukraine to defend itself from “Russian aggression”, raising the prospect of a proxy war in the heart of Europe between Cold War foes.
The outcome of the Minsk talks is expected to influence discussions at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, when sanctions against Moscow will be on the agenda. A deal would likely mean a softer line toward Moscow.
Merkel and Hollande were expected to arrive late for the Brussels meeting but would urge the European Union to support the Minsk deal.
The talks took place as an International Monetary Fund mission agreed a bailout to save Ukraine from bankruptcy.
The Fund provisionally agreed a $17.5 billion facility with Ukraine, part of a $40 billion funding package, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde said.
Kiev and NATO accuse Russia of supplying separatists with men and weapons. Moscow denies it is involved in fighting for territory Putin calls “New Russia”.
As the French and German leaders peace initiative was announced, pro-Russian rebels appeared determined to drive home their advantage ahead of a deal.
Armored columns of Russian-speaking soldiers with no insignia have been advancing for days around Debaltseve, which has seen heavy fighting in recent days.
On the Russian side of the border, Moscow has begun military exercises in 12 regions involving more than 30 missile regiments, RIA news agency reported on Thursday, citing a Defense Ministry official.
The United States has been openly discussing arming the Ukrainian government, a move that is opposed by European allies who say it would escalate the conflict while falling far short of giving Kiev the firepower needed to win.
President Barack Obama says he has yet to make up his mind on the question of sending weapons. He spoke by phone to Putin on Tuesday, and the White House said he warned the Russian leader that the costs would rise if Moscow kept aiding the separatists.
KIEV — The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Feb. 12 2015, 12:07 AM EST
Last updated Thursday, Feb. 12 2015, 7:19 AM EST