Ukraine’s government and pro-Russian separatists have agreed to a wide-ranging cease-fire deal after talks in the Belorussian capital Minsk. The deal was welcomed by Moscow and by NATO leaders meeting in Britain. But, there are lingering doubts over whether all sides will adhere to the agreement.
After five months of fighting that has taken over 2,500 lives, the cease-fire was declared, beginning at 6 p.m. Friday, local time (1400 UTC).
Emerging from the talks in Minsk, the leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, Igor Plotnitsky, said the separatists were not giving up their fight for independence.
“This cease-fire doesn't mean that the course that we are preparing, that our course to somehow secede, is over,” he said. “No, this is a measure taken in order to prevent further bloodshed among the people," said Plotnitsky.
The cease-fire deal lists 12 points of agreement - including the withdrawal of troops, a prisoner exchange, and the deployment of international monitors.
Speaking from the NATO summit in Wales Friday, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko said the deal is the beginning of a peace process.
“We are ready to provide significant steps, including the decentralization of power, including the specialty and certain of districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, for economic freedom, guarantee [the separatists'] rights to use any languages on this territory, and defend cultures of tradition," said Poroshenko.
As the envoys in Belarus debated terms of the cease-fire, fighting raged on the outskirts of Mariupol, a large city on the coast of the Azov Sea in southeastern Ukraine.
The West accuses Russia of sending arms and troops to support the rebels, a charge Moscow denies. Separatists have made significant territorial gains in recent days, and a member of the volunteer defense force in Mariupol, Tatyana Chornovil of the Azov Battalion, says there are widespread fears of a major assault on the city.
"Mariupol is strategically important. If we lose it then we could lose the entire coastline, the whole of the south of Ukraine. Should that happen, the rebels probably will take over Mykolaiv, Odessa and Trans-Dnestr [a breakaway part of Moldova that is allied with Moscow] They will go right up to the border of Western Europe,” said Chornovil.
NATO also fears such a scenario. European leaders say they are finalizing further sanctions against Russia, although those could be lifted if the cease-fire takes hold and lasts.
One big question hangs over the cease-fire agreement, says Orysia Lutsevych of London-based policy institute Chatham House.
“What would be the role of Russian troops on the ground? Are they withdrawing? Or perhaps President Putin is planning to re-format it into some kind of peacekeeping operation," said Lutsevych.
Lutsevych says deciphering Moscow’s game plan is difficult.
“Perhaps President Putin has already achieved his goal, to create a weak neighbor, Ukraine; to prevent its integration toward the West by establishing a frozen [stalemated] conflict in the Donbass region," she said.
A long-term political settlement still appears a long way off. Kyiv says Ukraine’s territorial integrity is not up for discussion, but the rebels say they will continue to demand independence.
So long as those differences persist, analysts say the cease-fire will remain fragile.
What's covered in protocol
Poroshenko told reporters Friday in Newport, Wales, where he was attending the NATO summit, that the cease-fire protocol includes 12 "practical steps" for establishing "peace and stability" in eastern Ukraine while respecting Ukraine's "sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence."
The Ukrainian president said "hostages" - an apparent reference to people being held by the separatists - should be released in the near future, possibly as soon as Saturday. He also said Kyiv would take "significant steps" to address the concerns of residents of eastern Ukraine, including decentralizing power in the country and ensuring that any language can be used in the rebel-stronghold regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Poroshenko said he would fulfill everything that was included in a peace plan he put forward in June, including an "amnesty." In his peace plan, he promised amnesty to rebels who lay down their weapons and had not committed "serious crimes."
In his comments Friday, the Ukrainian president did not mention Putin's call in his 7-point plan for a pullback of government forces from population centers in eastern Ukraine, presumably leaving the rebels in control of the territory. Many analysts have said Kyiv would be unlikely to accept this, viewing it as a surrender.
In another sign of possible obstacles to a lasting peace, the leader of the separatists' self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, Igor Plotnitsky, said Friday that the cease-fire did not mean the separatists were abandoning their plans to split off from Ukraine.
The rebellion in eastern Ukraine, launched in April by pro-Russian separatists, has killed more than 2,600 people and created tens of thousands of refugees fleeing areas near the Russian border.
Both Ukraine and NATO say rebels have made rapid advances in recent days, and accuse Moscow of providing direct help to separatists battling Ukraine forces in the Russian-speaking east.
Russia has consistently denied the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine, while rebel leaders say they have been helped by Russian soldiers who have used their vacation time to battle Ukrainian troops on Ukrainian soil.
Some material for this report provided by Reuters