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Fresh fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists erupted in eastern Ukraine Thursday, underscoring the challenges President Petro Poroshenko faces as he pushes a new peace plan.
Up to 4,000 separatist fighters are battling government forces near Kasny Liman, a town near Slovyansk, an unnamed Ukrainian military official told Reuters. The fighting broke out around 4 a.m. local time.
“We issued an ultimatum to the terrorists overnight to surrender their weapons. We guarantee their safety and investigation in line with Ukrainian law ... They refused,” government forces spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov told Reuters.
"Now we are trying to narrow the encirclement. They are trying to break out," Seleznyov said.
The fighting in Kasny Liman, a town that government forces retook on June 15 after two days of heaving fighting, comes a day after Mr. Poroshenko announced plans for a unilateral cease-fire. A cessation of hostilities is the first step in his new 14-point peace plan.
Poroshenko is due to travel to eastern Ukraine today to discuss his plan with officials from Donetsk and Luhansk, separatist strongholds that have seen fierce fighting, according to Reuters. He will not be meeting with separatists, who have declared independence from Kiev and attempted to create their own administration.
Other planks in the peace plan include sealing the 1,200-mile border with Russia; disarming insurgents; offering amnesties to those who did not commit serious crime; giving safe passage to rebels to leave the country; and eventually passing constitutional amendments to decentralize power. Poroshenko told reporters that the time frame for the cease-fire would begin "shortly" and that disarmament would quickly follow, the Post reports.
But separatists, who have been battling government forces for almost three months, promptly rejected the offer from Poroshenko, whom they said they do not trust.
“This proposal by Poroshenko to lay down our arms is simply a tactical ploy,” said Myroslav Rudenko, a spokesman for the separatists’ self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, according to the Russian Interfax news agency. “If people fall for it, there will be a new mopping-up operation. We will not put our weapons away.”
As The Christian Science Monitor noted yesterday, “the major question lurking behind Moscow-Kiev relations is just how much control Russia experts over the separatists in eastern Ukraine – and if it will be able to rein them in and allow a cease-fire to take place.”
While Russia claims it does not control or speak for the separatists, many in Ukraine and the West believe otherwise.
Poroshenko alluded to Russia's influence among the separatists in a speech [Wednesday] to graduates of the National University of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. The Kyiv Post reported that Poroshenko said Ukraine is dealing with “a new type of warfare – with the use of professional subversive groups, mercenaries, volunteers, and the local population. And these volunteers and the local population have ‘washed’ brains in a huge part due to the information war.”
In the Russian media, attention is focused on what is being called a “humanitarian crisis” in eastern Ukraine, blamed on the Ukrainian Army. Russia's state-owned broadcaster RT reported today that Ukrainian Army shelling in Slovyansk has “left the city paralyzed,” knocking out water and electricity supplies.
“They've bombed everything,” a local woman told RT. “There's no electricity, no water, no money, no work, nothing. We don't know what to do. We're not leaving, we want to live on this land.”
“Please help us,” said another woman. “Something must be done, we're being killed in Slavyansk.”
Michael Weiss, the head of The Interpreter, a Russian news and analysis site, writes in the Daily Beast today that Russia isn't pulling back. “Contrary to press claims that Putin has wound down his direct and indirect interference in east Ukraine — claims which were mostly based on his seeming acceptance of Petro Poroshenko’s election as Ukraine’s president, and his brief one-on-one conversations with Poroshenko and President Obama during the D-Day anniversary in France last week —the opposite is the case.”
For the last several weeks, my team at The Interpreter, a Russian news and analysis website, have been documenting mounting evidence of what we’ve termed Russia’s “remote controlled war” in east Ukraine.
According to Mr. Weiss, Russia has “covered its tracks” in recently providing three Russian T-64 battle tanks and several armored vehicles.