Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine celebrated their victory over Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve Monday with parades and a huge rally in the nearby city of Donetsk. The festivities in the Russian-speaking city came as the Kyiv government asked the United Nations Security Council to deploy peacekeepers to the war-torn region.
The Donetsk rally marked a national holiday in Russia and several former Soviet republics known as Defenders of the Fatherland Day. Reports elsewhere in the region included photos of the newly installed prime minister of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, waving an AK-47 automatic rifle in the city of Simferopol, and a smiling child poised in salute aboard a Russian warship in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
In New York, meanwhile, Ukraine's foreign minister pleaded with the 15-member U.N. Security Council to send peacekeepers to eastern Ukraine. Pavlo Klimkin accused Russia and its separatist supporters of ignoring an internationally brokered truce deal reached February 12 in Minsk, Belarus.
He also accused Russia-backed rebels of ongoing attacks elsewhere in the east, and accused "militants and their Russian masters" of blocking European monitors from policing the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from frontline positions.
Also in New York, the head the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a monitoring group, told reporters he regrets that the cease-fire is not being honored around Debaltseve and areas to the south of the town. But he said the overall number of "intense" military operations in that area has been "largely reduced" in recent weeks, and that no further hostilities have been observed elsewhere along the cease-fire line. The OSCE chairperson is set to brief the Council Tuesday (at 3 p.m. EST).
Earlier Monday, Ukraine's military said it could not begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the frontlines as called for in the cease-fire deal, because rebels were still carrying out attacks on targets near the Russian border.
For his part, Eduard Basurin, the rebel head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told Russia's Interfax news agency that the weapons withdrawal would begin Tuesday.
Russia has repeatedly denied supplying direct aid to rebels and says Russian soldiers seen fighting alongside rebels during to 10-month rebellion are doing so as volunteers.
Elsewhere Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin marked the holiday by attending a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow. In an interview aired on Russian television, Mr. Putin voiced hope that the Minsk cease-fire deal will hold and urged the Kyiv government to bring Ukraine "back to normal life." He also called for guarantees that "the lawful rights and interests" of Ukraine's Russian-speaking citizens in the east are protected.
The Russian leader also again rejected Ukrainian accusations linking the Kremlin to the deaths of some 100 demonstrators in Kyiv last year, during weeks of protests that led to the ouster of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. He called the accusations "nonsense."
In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament that Russia should be hit with more Western economic sanctions if separatists try to expand their territorial control.