In Ukraine, signs of trouble just days into cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels

Many in Kiev doubt the cease-fire in the country's east will hold given the gulf between different sides on the political steps needed for a lasting peace. 

Andrew Winning/Reuters
Goodbye to all that? Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was waving goodbye to the conflict in his country's east at the NATO summit in Wales a few days ago. But the cease-fire deal he reached with pro-Russia rebels could prove short lived.

A deal designed by a committee, with something for everyone but virtually no chance of working. Yet a truce that's holding, mostly, after five months of bloody conflict.

Last Friday's agreement reached between Ukraine's warring parties calls for an internationally-supervised ceasefire. Despite numerous reports of continuing gunfire and artillery exchanges, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said Monday that the truce is shaky, but holding in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. 

But few expect the ceasefire to last very long, despite general agreement that both sides need breathing space from a brutal war that has officially killed over 3,000 people since mid-April. That's because most of the political steps laid down in the 12-point deal, known as the Minsk Protocol, are a patchwork of incompatible measures which neither side is willing to implement. For Kiev, one sticking point is the prospect of rebel-held regions electing local officials without central government oversight. 

Since April, Kiev has tried to reimpose its writ by deploying regular troops and privately-funded militia in the east. By August, the campaign had encircled rebel cities in Donetsk and Luhansk. Then the rebels – by most accounts backed by regular Russian troops – counterattacked in what observers called a "a catastrophic defeat" for Kiev's forces.    

Ukrainian military analysts appear shell shocked by the sudden reversal of fortunes. Many blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for backing the rebels. Others, more cautiously, suggest that Western help for Ukraine's struggle may have come up short.

"If the West had been more resolute about imposing sanctions, punishing Russia for its interference, it might have been more successful," says Nikolai Sungurovsky, a military expert with the independent Razumkov Center in Kiev. "There's plenty of evidence that sanctions should be swift and tough to be effective. Gradual sanctions gave Russia too much time to adapt."

Regroup, then back to war?

Most argue there Ukraine had little alternative to calling a temporary halt to hostilities in order to regroup its shattered forces. "Under the conditions we have, any possibility for a ceasefire had to be accepted," says Ukrainian political expert Viktor Zamyatin. "We have too many serious challenges piling up, which can't be dealt with under fire."

But without a workable political agenda, the shooting is liable to resume at any moment. "Both sides have totally different visions of the way forward," says Mr. Sungurovsky. "They should have focused on a cease-fire, exchange of prisoners and humanitarian issues... instead they tried to identify a political path forward."

The most controversial measures include a requirement that the Ukrainian parliament pass a law granting "special status" to the rebel-held regions, who would then hold snap local elections. Analysts say there is zero chance Kiev would allow this, since such steps would freeze the conflict in place and allow rebel chiefs to legitimize their rule. 

"There is absolutely no clarity in that document," says Sergei Gaiday, a Kiev-based political consultant. "What do they mean by 'special status' and 'elections'? Would these be organized under Ukrainian law, and supervised by Kiev? The separatists want to leave Ukraine, but nobody here is going to accept that."

Demands for demobilization 

A non-starter for the rebels is a point which calls for the removal of "illegal armed groups, military hardware, and all fighters and mercenaries from Ukrainian territory." The oligarch-funded pro-Kiev militia in eastern Ukraine are also unlikely to disband, analysts say.

"The army and the public want a ceasefire," says Vladimir Panchenko of the International Center of Political Studies in Kiev. "But if Ukrainian leaders are forced to watch these rebel republics separate it will mean that we accept Putin's victory." Nobody's ready for that, he adds.    

Sungurovsky says a resumption of fighting  is "necessary" because Ukraine "cannot accept a frozen conflict on our territory. At any time it might be expanded to other regions. Nobody imagines it will end tomorrow, but we will have to see it through to a conclusion Ukraine can live with."

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