DONETSK - The rumble of tank shelling and mortar exchanges comes in waves, startling flocks of crows. For hours there can be silence here in the center of Donetsk, only for the quiet to be shattered as clashes between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces resume, mainly around the city’s wrecked airport and in the fiercely contested village of Pesky.
But the bangs and thumps can come from virtually anywhere around Donetsk, and they all testify to the collapse of a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago between the warring sides fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The truce agreed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk has been breached nearly 3,000 times since its was inked on September 5, according to the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors the accord’s observance.
Cease-fire all but dead
Ukraine’s representative to the OSCE, Ihor Prokopchuk, said the cease-fire is all but dead. Others argue it started dying the moment it was signed.
Kyiv blames the separatists for the breaches, insisting its soldiers only respond to attacks launched by their foes. Moscow, which has been accused by the OSCE of moving convoys of heavy armor into the disputed east, said Kyiv is the offending party.
Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council Wednesday reported that Russian columns continue to cross into Ukraine. And in its daily update on troop movements, the council claimed: “Russia has redeployed warplanes normally based in Perm to the airport at Millerovo in the Rostov region.”
The council also claimed Russia had transferred radar systems near the border with Ukraine able to monitor the airspace over the country’s Luhansk province, one of the two disputed oblasts of the Donbas region.
Many rebel commanders and fighters make no pretense of their disdain for a cease-fire they say they never agreed to in the first place.
In an interview with the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the commander of the feared Prizrak (Ghost) battalion in Luhansk, Alexey Mozgovoy, said he “never took the Minsk agreement seriously.”
Alan, an Ossetian fighter, who fought alongside the Russian military in the 2008 war with Georgia, told VOA, “There never was a cease-fire.”
He smiles and then adds: “Ukraine broke the truce by not being serious about prisoner exchanges. They sent us back crooks and drunks who were never separatist fighters."
He insists he is a “volunteer” and wasn’t sent to eastern Ukraine by the Kremlin. But he sports an automatic weapon that was never in use by the Ukraine military - most arms used by separatist fighters were looted from Ukrainian weapons stores.
Disputes persist on violations of the Minsk deal
Ukrainian Security Service officials dismiss the claim that they didn’t observe the Minsk agreement provision governing prisoner swaps.
An official, Vasyl Vovk, said exchanges did take place, but there are still 333 Ukrainian servicemen, 41 members of volunteer battalions and two journalists being held by the separatists. He acknowledged about 1,000 Ukrainian servicemen have been freed by the rebels.
Reports of violations of the Minsk agreement continue daily across the Donbas.
The OSCE monitoring team reported Wednesday that in the last 24 hours in the town of Debaltseve, some 54 kilometers northeast of Donetsk, Ukrainian officers claimed separatists had violated the cease-fire 82 times. Russian military officers, part of the monitoring mechanism, counter-claimed that Ukrainian military were responsible for 74 violations within the same time period in the town.
The vacillating claims amuse Alan, the Ossetian fighter. He said the conflict will not be over until both oblasts in the Donbas are part of what he called "New Russia" and have joined the Russian Federation. And he lays claim to more of Ukraine than just the Donbas.
This enlarging territorial claim is echoed among separatist fighters and their leaders.
In his interview with Novaya Gazeta, Ghost battalion commander Mozgovoy said the separatists won’t stop with Donetsk and Luhansk, but once they have finally secured them, they will push further and grab all eight provinces of southeast Ukraine, including Mariupol, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia. He said the port city of Odessa should be part of “New Russia.”
Told that there is little evidence that people in Mariupol or Odessa want to leave Ukraine, Mozgovoy dismisses the claim, saying people shouldn’t be afraid of war. “I know the situation,” he said. “Some homes will be destroyed, so what?”
Ukraine officials said the rebels are impossible to negotiate with and said this is partly why the country’s prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, Wednesday rejected a call by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for Kyiv to negotiate directly with the separatists.
At a government meeting in Kyiv, Yatseniuk said that direct negotiations would legitimize the insurgents, who he insists are Moscow proxies, according to Reuters. “If you (Russia) want peace - fulfill the Minsk agreement,” he said.
Alan said he will never observe the Minsk agreement and neither will his fighters. “This is Russian land, Russia’s ancestral home and NATO and the Americans won’t push us out.”