New Ukraine truce: rays of hope and clouds of doubt

Ukraine’s warring sides marked a week without heavy fighting Monday in a tentatively encouraging change to a 17-month war that has debilitated Western relations with Russia and unsettled eastern Europe.

The pro-European leaders in Kiev and separatist eastern rebels whom Russia denies arming are preparing a meeting Tuesday that one militia leader said could mark “the end of war”.

Kiev and the insurgents last Tuesday recommitted themselves to a six-month-old truce and heavy weapons withdrawal agreement that was broken quickly and followed by hundreds of deaths.

The toll and exchanges of artillery and rocket fire have subsided dramatically since the new pledge went into effect. Just a handful of civilians and no soldiers have been reported killed in clashes in the past week.

The worst days of Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the Balkans crises of the 1990s had seen dozens die daily. The war itself has claimed nearly 6,900 lives.

The question many diplomats are asking is: why the sudden change?

Two possible explanations involve current mayhem reported in the ranks of the guerrillas and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s appearance this month at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York.

Some suggest Putin may be ready to extend an olive branch to US President Barack Obama and European leaders in order to ease the sting of Western sanctions and low oil prices on Russia’s shrinking and heavily energy export-dependent economy.

“The Kremlin may be trying to figure out a way out of the mess that it has got itself into,” Steven Pifer of the Washington-based Brookings Institution said by email.

“We will need more time to see if this ceasefire can be sustained and to understand the political factors at play,” the former US ambassador to Ukraine said.

Kiev officials also voiced doubt about how long this lull might last.

“Russia needs to see these sanctions lifted and is now imitating an improvement to the situation,” a high-ranking Ukrainian diplomat told AFP.

“But everything can turn back at any moment.”

– ‘The end of war’ –

Ukraine has experienced peaceful spells on previous occasions.

Yet each was always followed by still more shelling and occasional vows by the more strident militia leaders to capture territory long controlled by the government.

On the agenda of the sides’ Minsk meeting Tuesday is the withdrawal of smaller weapons from the conflict’s buffer zone.

“If 100-millimetre-calibre and smaller equipment is pulled back from the line of contact, this in essence will spell the end of war,” separatist Donetsk negotiator Denis Pushilin said in a statement.

His Lugansk counterpart also sounded positive.

“We have hope,” said Vladislav Deinego. “Why else would we meet?”

– Rebel palace coup –

The lull has been accompanied by reports of utter mayhem within the rebels’ senior ranks.

The head of the self-proclaimed parliament of Donetsk — the larger and more violence-prone of the two pro-Russian industrial regions — was deposed under mysterious circumstances Friday that included reports of his brief arrest.

Ousted speaker Andrei Purgin was viewed as one of the leaders of a rebel camp that strongly objected to current truce terms and lobbied for his region’s union with Russia.

“Purgin has been credited with an effort to stage a Donetsk referendum on joining Russia,” Kiev’s authoritative news site wrote.

“This contradicted the Minsk agreements and — most importantly — Moscow’s own plans.”

A number of analysts believe Putin has given up his original idea of taking over Donetsk and Lugansk because of the cost supporting the war-scarred provinces would exact on Russia’s shaky economy.

Rebel supporter and frequent war zone visitor Alexander Zhuchkovsky — a Saint Petersburg-based activist who helps to provide rebel regions with supplies — said Purgin was purged because he rejected principal points of the Minsk pact.

One of these called on the militia to cede control of their part of the Russian-Ukrainian border to Kiev by the end of the year.

“Everything now suggests that Moscow will press the Donetsk (separatist) leadership into seeking the Minsk deal’s full implementation — including the border’s handover to Ukrainian control,” Zhuchkovsky wrote in his blog.

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