Russia, Ukraine agree to partial weapons withdrawal
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Diplomats from Russia and Ukraine agreed Wednesday to pull back heavy weapons from an agreed demarcation line in accordance with the Minsk agreement of September, just hours after separatist forces deployed more arms to east Ukraine.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who hosted a meeting of his counterparts from Russia, Ukraine and France, said the four parties had agreed that the demarcation line defined in the Minsk agreement of September last year should form the basis for the withdrawal.
Under the plan, Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists would pull back their heavy arms 15 kilometres (nine miles) on either side of the line, though there was no agreement on a withdrawal of all troops.
“Finally there was an agreement reached today that the demarcation line, mentioned in the Minsk protocol, will be the line from which the withdrawal of heavy weaponry should start now,” Steinmeier said late on Wednesday after talks in Berlin with his counterparts from France, Russia and Ukraine.
Steinmeier said the agreement had been “difficult work” and the talks, which followed a fruitless round of negotiations last week, were “testing the patience of all involved”.
“A lot depends on the question if that what we have agreed on will not only remain printed paper, but will also change the situation on the ground,” he added.
The parties also agreed that the contact group of Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) should meet as soon as possible with the aim of laying further groundwork for a high-level meeting in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, aimed at reaching a long-lasting settlement.
Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the “strong support” for the pullback was the meeting’s most important result. He said the foreign ministers did not discuss the sanctions that the West has imposed on Russia over the Ukraine crisis, saying: “The sanctions are not our problem, it is the problem of those who introduced them and now do not know how to extricate themselves.”
Earlier this month French President François Hollande said the sanctions should be lifted if progress were made in resolving the crisis.
Lavrov had urged measures to contain the unfolding unrest earlier on Wednesday, but said nothing about the rebels surrendering territory they acquired in violation of the Minsk peace deal. Ukraine says separatist forces that are backed by Russia have overstepped agreed-upon front-line boundaries between the warring sides by 500 square kilometres (190 square miles).
‘Direct support from Russia’
Meanwhile a fresh separatist advance is under way in an area northwest of Luhansk, the second-largest rebel-held city. The fighting is centred on two checkpoints along a strategic highway.
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said one of those positions, Checkpoint 31, had been abandoned on Tuesday but that operations were underway to retake it.
The separatist forces appear well poised to take the upper hand, however.
An AP reporter saw nine Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers and six anti-tank cannons moving near the town of Perevalsk at around midday. A rebel militiaman with the convoy who declined to give his name said the armament was heading in the direction of Checkpoint 31.
Along the same road, the AP saw four Grad multiple rocket launchers accompanied by four trucks carrying ammunition and 15 pristine-looking tanks, also heading toward the checkpoint.
Speaking during a visit to Kiev, US Army Europe commander Lieutenant General Ben Hodges said the quantity of Russian equipment being provided to separatists had doubled between the September cease-fire deal and December.
“It is very clear from the capabilities that the proxies (rebels) have used against Ukrainian security forces, the type of artillery, modern equipment, the amount of ammunition that has been used,” Hodges said. “It is irrefutable that they are getting direct support from Russia.”
FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg went further, saying that Russia had failed to close the border with Ukraine. "It’s absolutely undeniable that Russia has made no serious attempt to stop the flow of arms into Ukraine,” reported from the eastern city of Kramatorsk.
No ceasefire in sight
In a joint statement released by the German foreign ministry, the ministers noted “with serious concern” the severe escalation in deadly violence in the east of the country.
“This must stop immediately and the regime of quiet must be restored,” the statement said, adding that the ministers called on all actors on the ground to fully respect it. That included withdrawal of heavy weapons in accordance with the contact line as stipulated in the Minsk plan.
The ministers said tangible progress on the full implementation of the Minsk protocol had to be achieved before a planned summit could take place. That included an effective ceasefire, an agreement on the delivery of humanitarian aid and continuation of the release of detainees.
The four ministers reiterated support for the Ukraine contact group and called on signatories of the Minsk plan to meet in the coming days to implement the ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons.
They also called for formation of working groups to address relevant aspects of the Minsk agreements.
‘A global problem’
Kiev and Moscow blame each other for failing to implement the Minsk agreement, while more than 4,700 have died in the fighting.
Addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko held up a piece of a bullet-riddled bus as evidence of shelling last week by Russian heavy artillery in his country. He says 9,000 Russian troops are occupying 7 percent of Ukrainian territory.
He said the metal came from a bus in the town of Volnovakha, where 13 people were killed by what he described as Russian shelling.
“For me this is a symbol, a symbol of the terroristic attack against my country,” he said, comparing it with the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over rebel-held eastern Ukraine last summer.
He called it a “global problem,” extending far beyond just Ukraine’s borders, cutting short his visit to Davos to deal with the crisis in his country.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP)