Kiev, rebels sign cease-fire, but Ukraine's path to peace remains steep

The deal, backed by leaders from Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany, includes a withdrawal of heavy weapons and a prisoner exchange. But it also retains the problems that led to the collapse of a similar deal in September.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gestures as he speaks to the media after the peace talks in Minsk, Belarus, on Thursday.

A cease-fire reached overnight in Minsk to stop fighting in eastern Ukraine echoes a similar pact struck five months ago. This time the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia were present to bless – although they did not sign – a deal that could be the last chance to halt a conflict that has spiraled toward all-out war over the past month.

The new agreement, published on the Kremlin website, calls on both sides to stop fighting, pull back heavy weapons, and exchange prisoners. The cease-fire is due to take effect midnight Saturday.

No one sounds very optimistic. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists the deal is a "ray of hope" but added there are many obstacles down the road. Russian President Vladimir Putin called on both sides to show restraint but added, somewhat ominously, that he was ready to send in the Russian Army to oversee the disengagement of Ukrainian and rebel forces.

One thing Russian observers agree on is that, even if it doesn't last, the deal is probably good for Moscow and for Mr. Putin personally.

"It shows that Russia is not a pariah state, and that European leaders consider Putin to be a political figure they can still engage with," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant. "In 16 hours of hard bargaining, Putin showed himself as a partner seeking similar goals."

Ms. Merkel went out of her way Thursday to tell journalists that it was Putin who convinced the Ukrainian separatist leaders, who are currently winning on the battlefield, to accept the ceasefire. Ukrainian and NATO officials say an influx of Russian weaponry and personnel helped to tip the balance in the rebels’ favor, while rebels claim the Ukrainian forces lack dedication.

The nearly year-long conflict, has killed over 5,000 people by the UN's account, but possibly ten times as many according to a German intelligence report leaked last week.

Over the last week, Merkel and French President François Hollande have tried to stake out a diplomatic alternative to proposals from some US lawmakers and administration officials for the rearming of Ukraine, a move that is strongly opposed by Russia. Merkel said over the weekend that there was no military solution to the Ukrainian conflict. However, neither Merkel nor Mr. Hollande were signatories to the Minsk pact, which was signed by leaders of the self-proclaimed rebel republics and former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

"This is not an agreement, it's just a declaration. If it were serious, wouldn't the main leaders have signed it?" says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. "Our best hope is that it leads to a pause in hostilities. As for the key issues, nothing has been resolved."

Under the deal, Ukrainian forces are required to pull back from the "actual" line of contact, meaning that rebels will be allowed to keep the 500 square miles of territory they've gained in tough fighting over the past month. It's not clear what should happen in the "Debaltseve bulge," where rebels have reportedly surrounded a Ukrainian army of 6,000 and appear unlikely to relinquish that advantage.

Nevertheless, many experts say even a brief ceasefire and the promised "all for all" exchange of prisoners on both sides would be a huge relief. It might also give hope to beleaguered civilians in the rebel-held areas, since it stipulates that humanitarian aid should be allowed in "unimpeded."

Experts say the new deal has many of the flaws of the old one. There is no provision for a peacekeeping force to supervise the ceasefire and ensure that weapons are really pulled back from the combat zone. As before, unarmed observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are supposed to perform oversight functions, though they proved helpless to prevent regular violations of the previous accord.

Nor is there much clarity in the renewed call for all "illegal military formations" to be disbanded, and for all foreign mercenaries, armed forces, and equipment to leave Ukraine. In Kiev, that is interpreted as meaning that Russia should stop allowing arms, volunteers, and regular troops to enter eastern Ukraine. But Moscow, which denies any involvement, issued a statement urging Ukraine to expel foreigners rumored to be fighting with pro-Kiev volunteer battalions.

"The principal question is not resolved at all," says Alexei Melnik, an expert with the independent Razumkov Center in Kiev. "All the facts testify to Russia's taking part in this conflict, yet Moscow refuses to make the compromises that would lead to genuine de-escalation."

Another huge bone of contention is bound to be the pledge that Ukraine will affirm "special status" for the rebel regions of Donetsk and Luhansk within 30 days, then change the constitution by year-end to give them broader autonomy. But, emerging from the talks, Mr. Poroshenko told journalists that there would be no major changes to Ukraine's "unitary" state structure, a position he has frequently stated.

"What we're going to see is a kind of Minsk buffet, like we did before, where the parties pick and choose what they want from the text, and the contradictions just keep accumulating until fighting explodes again," says Mr. Strokan. "It's hard to see this deal as any kind of a game-changer. At best, it's just a brief respite.”

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