Ukraine ceasefire is ‘glimmer of hope’ after marathon talks

Deal appears to oblige the rebels to pull back from land seized since last September

The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France have reached agreement on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, but admitted that major work remains to be done to bring lasting peace to the region.

After some 16 hours of talks, the leaders said they had agreed that a new ceasefire would come into force this weekend, superseding a September truce that failed to halt fighting and eventually collapsed in major bloodshed and acrimony.

“The main thing that was achieved, was that at midnight on February 15th, overnight from Saturday to Sunday, an unconditional and comprehensive ceasefire should be declared,” Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

“The chiefs of military general staff of Ukraine and Russia will discuss on Friday how to monitor the ceasefire regime in Donbas,” he added, referring to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that are partly controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

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Russia’s Ekho Moskvy news outlet said the deal included provision for observers from the 57-state Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to monitor the ceasefire, and that 50km “buffer zone” would be created between the opposing forces.

Mr Poroshenko said all heavy artillery should be withdrawn from the frontline by both sides within 14 days, and within 19 days all prisoners should be released by both sides; Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot held in Russia, is also expected to be freed.

“The document also contains a clear obligation to withdraw all foreign forces from Ukrainian territory. All mercenaries should be withdrawn from Ukrainian territory in the near future,” he added.

Ukraine, the United States, major EU nations and Nato say Russia is providing the separatists with high-tech weapons, ammunition, training and military advice, as well as allowing volunteers fighters to enter Ukraine and sending in some regular units of the Russian army. Moscow denies all such claims.

Ekho Moskvy said the deal also obliged Ukraine’s parliament to formalise the boundary line of rebel-held territory according to the original September peace deal, and for “dialogue” to begin on holding elections there.

Mr Poroshenko insisted he had not agreed to create a “federal” Ukraine or give autonomy to the rebel regions, but Russia media quoted the deal as demanding constitutional reform in Ukraine “with decentralisation as a key element” and “special status for separate regions of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.”

The deal

The deal foresees Kiev restoring banking services in separatist-controlled areas and resuming payment of pensions and state wages - and for Germany and France to assist in this process.

A key sticking point could be Ukraine’s demand that Russia allow it to regain full control over its side of their shared border, large stretches of which are now held by the insurgents and open to the flow of fighters and arms from Russia.

The agreement, as published in Russian media, allows for Kiev to retake border control only “on the first day after local elections and the completion of a comprehensive political settlement.”

Those local elections “should be agreed with representatives of the separate regions”, the deal states - a mechanism which could potentially allow the rebels to stymie elections and so prevent Kiev retaking control of its frontier. The process should be completed by the end of the year, according to the agreement.

The deal appears to oblige the rebels to pull back from land seized since last September’s ceasefire deal, and it is not clear how they will take this - particularly around the key government-held rail hub of Debaltseve, which has been the focus of fierce recent fighting in a conflict that has killed more than 5,350 people and displaced more than one million.

Russian president Vladimir Putin said the rebels consider thousands of Ukrainian troops in the area to be surrounded, and demand that they lay down their weapons and surrender. Mr Poroshenko rejects this claim.

“It was not the best night of my life but the morning, I think, is good because we have managed to agree on the main things, despite all the difficulties of the negotiations,” Mr Putin said.

French president Francois Hollande said “a comprehensive political solution” had been achieved and there was “serious hope, even if all is not done”.

“This is a relief for Europe and a fine example of what France and Germany can do for peace,” he added.

German chancellor Angela Merkel said Mr Poroshenko “did everything to achieve the possibility of an end to the bloodshed” and Mr Putin “put pressure on the separatists so that they agreed to a ceasefire.”

“We have now a glimmer of hope,” Dr Merkel said.

“I have no illusions, we have no illusions,” she added, saying that “much work” remained to be done.

German foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmeier added a strong note of caution.

“We expect that until ceasefire takes effect, both sides will refrain from doing anything that could jeopardise Minsk agreement,” he wrote on Twitter.

“Agreement is not a breakthrough, but could be a step from a spiral of military escalation towards political momentum.”