Ukrainian rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko declared on Friday that Ukraine's four-month-old cease-fire is effectively dead, and promised a new offensive to take territory from Kiev's control – an aggressive new tone that appears to put him at odds with his putative sponsors in Moscow.
"There will no longer be any attempts to speak about a cease-fire from our side. We will now see how Kiev reacts. Kiev doesn’t currently understand that we can advance in three directions simultaneously," Russian news agencies quoted Mr. Zakharchenko as saying. He also said that in future he will talk to no one but Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on an equal basis.
Apparently rejecting Russian calls for the "federalization" of Ukraine under its central government in Kiev, Zakharchenko insisted on full independence for the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
That seems sharply at odds with the diplomatic process being pursued by the Kremlin, which Kiev and Western governments accuse of orchestrating events in eastern Ukraine. Even Russian experts are expressing bafflement at the disconnect between Moscow's diplomacy and the declarations of rebel leaders in Ukraine.
Some suggest it may be a coordinated "good cop, bad cop" game, aimed at achieving maximum leverage in negotiations. But others believe Moscow's actual ability to force its proxies to accept a deal may be limited.
"Everyone is playing their role. Russia is trying to mediate for Donetsk to remain part of Ukraine. Kiev says it wants peace, but doesn't want to compromise with the status of these [rebel] republics. Zakharchenko doesn't want to exchange his military successes for empty commitments from Kiev," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Zakharchenko listens to Moscow, and Moscow is helping him to maintain [rebel gains]. But that doesn't mean Zakharchenko will be willing to give up his positions."
On Thursday Russia's foreign minister, meeting with his counterparts from Ukraine, Germany and France, concluded a major deal to set a "demarcation line" between Ukrainian and rebel forces that would be the starting point for a pullback of heavy weaponry on both sides.
Russia has repeatedly called for Kiev and rebel leaders to negotiate directly on a peace deal within a "single political space." At a meeting with his Security Council on Friday, President Vladimir Putin blamed Kiev for talking peace while actually making war.
Airport as battleground
In recent days military activity has spiked sharply, with rebels declaring Thursday that they had seized most of Donetsk airport, after months of fighting, and that they now intend to push Ukrainian forces out of artillery range of Donetsk. Zakharchenko said Friday that rebel forces will now "push outwards" to control the entire territory of Donetsk province. The rebels currently hold only about a third of the province.
Kiev claims the rebels are entirely dependent on Russia, and that direct Russian military intervention facilitated last summer's battlefield victories that led Ukraine to sign the Minsk ceasefire deal in September. Similar accusations have been leveled this week over the rebels' airport offensive.
A handful of Russian observers concur. Dmitry Oreshkin, a sharp Kremlin critic and head of Mercator, a Moscow political consultancy, says Ukraine's rebels would be finished "within a month" if Russia stopped supporting them.
"So of course there's an element of political gamesmanship behind what we're seeing," he says. "Moscow controls the situation, but wants Zakharchenko to come off looking tough and independent for its own reasons."