Kiev and Moscow talk of war and peace

Faces of war: Ukrainian soldiers depart for the front line in the east of the country (AFP).

Faces of war: Ukrainian soldiers depart for the front line in the east of the country (AFP).

Moscow and Kiev again traded mutual accusations of warmongering, as fighting and heavy shelling continued this week in eastern Ukraine and residential areas came under fire.

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, told the World Economic Forum in Davos that there were more than 9 000 Russian soldiers on the ground in eastern Ukraine, and said it was up to Moscow to end the conflict, which has so far cost at least 4 800 lives.

“The solution is very simple – stop supplying weapons … withdraw the troops and close the border. Very simple peace plan. If you want to discuss something different, it means you are not for peace; you are for war,” he said.

In Moscow, however, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said it was up to Kiev to stop its assault and begin negotiations, and called for an immediate ceasefire. He again denied that Russian troops were active in Ukraine, saying no proof had been offered, despite evidence of secret military funerals in Russia and repeated sightings of Russian military hardware in Ukraine.

But, despite all the signs that Russia has backed the rebels with firepower and at times manpower, Ukraine has not offered any evidence that would suggest Poroshenko’s 9 000 figure is accurate.

Privately, some rebels in Donetsk admit they have received help from Moscow, but deny that the number of Russian soldiers present is in the thousands. With Russia’s economy in trouble, there have been suggestions that President Vladimir Putin may be looking for a way out of the conflict, and Lavrov again said Kiev should begin talks with representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”.

Strengthening positions
The long-standing pattern for rebels to shell Ukrainian positions from sites close to residential areas, the Ukrainians firing back imprecisely and civilians dying has continued in recent days. The new wave of fighting may be about strengthening positions ahead of a putative meeting between Putin and Poroshenko. The meeting was planned to take place in the Kazakh capital of Astana last week, with German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president François Hollande in attendance, but it was postponed. Instead, the foreign ministers of the four countries met in Berlin late on Wednesday.

Reuters reported that an agreement was reached on establishing security zones between pro-Russian fighters and Kiev’s forces. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was quoted as saying that an agreement had been reached on the demarcation line, “from which the withdrawal of heavy weaponry should start now”.

The ministers said tangible progress on the full implementation of the Minsk protocol must be achieved before a planned summit could take place. That includes a ceasefire, an agreement on the delivery of humanitarian aid and the continued release of detainees.

“The Russian objective seems to be to sustain a problem rather than find a solution,” said one Western diplomat in Kiev. The sides agreed to a ceasefire in Minsk in September, but the truce was broken almost as soon as it started and has collapsed in recent days.

Funeral ceremony for Ukrainian serviceman
Sombre memorial: Bogdanna Nikonenko takes part in a funeral ceremony for her serviceman father Sergiy, who was killed in the fighting in Luhansk. (Reuters)

The most intense fighting has come at Donetsk airport, which until last May was a shiny new complex built for the Euro 2012 football tournament but has now become a hugely symbolic military prize. It has been controlled by the Ukrainians since the beginning of the conflict despite several rebel attempts to seize it, and the airport’s defenders, colloquially known as “cyborgs”, have become cult heroes in Ukraine.

However, a renewed rebel offensive has dislodged them from most of the airport and, despite Kiev’s claims to be in control of the territory, fighting at close quarters is continuing. Several Ukrainian soldiers were wounded there on Monday after shelling caused the collapse of a ceiling. Rebel forces took eight Ukrainian soldiers prisoner who were then interviewed on Russian television. Russian journalists also showed what they said were the corpses of Ukrainian soldiers inside the airport building.

Battle report on Facebook
“There is a really thick fog, with visibility down to 20 to 30 metres,” wrote Ukrainian presidential aide Yuriy Biryukov on Facebook about the airport battle. “It is difficult to explain this to someone who hasn’t been at the front, but this kind of fog is fatal for morale, especially when you are trying to get close without being noticed and understand you can be killed at any moment. Your nerves go quickly.”

“They are shelling us with mortars, tanks and Grads [Soviet-era multiple rocket launchers],” Vlad Chorny, a commander of Right Sector, a militant nationalist group fighting with Ukrainian forces, said from Pisky, a village about 2km from Donetsk airport.

Lavrov said earlier in the week that, under the Minsk accords, Donetsk airport should be handed over to the separatists, something that Ukrainian officials deny. “It’s not for Sergei Lavrov to decide which parts of Ukrainian territory should be under whose control,” said Serhiy Halushko, of the Ukrainian defence ministry.

For several days, the sound of outgoing artillery fire has been audible from central Donetsk and incoming fire has also hit residential areas, adding yet more numbers to the civilian death toll. Other towns in the region have also come under fire as both the Ukrainians and the rebels attempt to hit each other’s positions with Grad rockets and other imprecise weapons.

In Davos, Poroshenko held up a piece of metal from a bus that was hit by rockets in the town of Volnovakha. Thirteen civilians died and many others were injured when the bus was hit as it stood at a Ukrainian army checkpoint on January 13. It appears the checkpoint was attacked with rockets fired from rebel-held territory.

“I have here part of the Volnovakha bus with the hits of the fragments of the Russian missiles which are hitting my people. It is a symbol of the terrorist attack against my country,” he said.

But as artillery attacks from apparently Ukrainian positions continue to cause civilian deaths, the anger among those people who have remained in the east is directed towards Kiev, making a lasting political settlement seem a very distant prospect.

IMF bailout
Ukraine has asked for a new bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to help its economy recover from the damage caused by the ongoing conflict with Russia. Poroshenko made the request in person to IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, at a bilateral meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday.

Ukraine has asked the IMF for a new, extended fund facility. It would replace its existing $17?billion standby facility, which is at least $15?billion short of what Kiev needs.

Ukraine’s government bonds have slumped in value in recent weeks on anticipation that it would default. The finance minister, Natalia Yaresko, hinted that Ukraine would seek to restructure its debt, telling reporters in Davos: “We will also consult with the holders of our sovereign debt with a view to improving medium-term debt sustainability.”

Lagarde said the IMF board would be convened as quickly as possible to consider Ukraine’s request, which she “certainly proposed” to support.

“This [extended fund facility request] clearly is a demonstration of the Ukrainian authorities to conduct serious long-term structural reforms in addition to also adjusting their fiscal policy to make sure the Ukrainian economy is in a position to recover,” she added. – © Guardian News & Media 2015



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