Low-key talks prevent ceasefire breaches in eastern Ukraine from spiralling into all-out war.
By Kitty Logan (in Donetsk)
A senior Russian officer paces the graveled terrace on the rooftop of the deserted railway station in rebel-held Donetsk, listening to the sporadic thump of artillery, straining his eyes through binoculars to spot the source of theoutgoing fire. ‘Why don’t they stay calm?’ he asks. ‘Why do they need to shoot?’
And that is the question everyone has been asking about the second Minsk accord, even as the ink was drying on the deal.
Several points of that ceasefire agreement, brokered between Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany after all-night talks in February, have been breached repeatedly.
So far, serious flare-ups have been limited to a fierce confrontation in early June in the town of Maryinka, to the west of Donetsk, regular shelling in Shyrokne near Mariupol and exchanges of fire around the flashpoint area of Donetsk airport. The front lines may be active in places, but – crucially – neither side has advanced much beyond the line of contact which was drawn on the map in Minsk. Not because they don’t want to, but because of an ongoing dialogue.
Observers witness many of the ceasefire violations from their vantage point at the joint co-ordination centre at Donetsk train station, with its panoramic views across the hotspots around the heavily contested airport area. The post is manned by international monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), representatives from both Ukrainian and Russian armed forces, as well as rebel officials.
According to the OSCE’s daily report from July 10th, for example, monitors recorded over 600 instances of weapons fire during a ten hour period, including ‘tank, anti-aircraft gun, heavy machine gun, automatic grenade launcher and small arms fire.’ That, clearly, is no ceasefire at all, especially factoring in that the figures don’t include the night time hours, when international monitors are under security curfew. That is when the fighting most often heats up, with the sound of shelling echoing across the city centre.
In the makeshift office within the station building, OSCE staff work alongside representatives from both parties to encourage local negotiations. The Ukrainian and Russian officers sit at desks openly facing each other, poring over maps and logbooks. Despite having government leaders who can barely disguise their mutual dislike, the atmosphere between the two men is collegial and convivial. ‘We have to stop this before it escalates,’ says the Russian officer, as small arms fire continues. He heads back to the roof with his Ukrainian counterpart in tow, both working the phones, each talking to his own side simultaneously until a localised ceasefire is arranged, ‘We’ve agreed on 15:00,’ the Ukrainian officer tells a command centre. ‘Both sides are aware.’
Shortly after 3pm there is silence. Nobody on the roof moves – all watching, listening. A single explosion follows and eyes roll. Another couple of phone calls and the sky is again eerily quiet, the only sound now is the steadily increasing rain. The calm lasts for the rest of the afternoon and into the night, although some monitors believe the worsening weather is perhaps a contributing factor.
The problem is that these short-terms deals don’t last.
Within days, OSCE statistics indicate it’s back to business as usual on the front lines around Donetsk airport. But the OSCE’s Deputy Monitor in Ukraine, Alexander Hug, says informal talks are a promising sign. ‘The important thing is now that the two sides are willing to talk’” he says. “We have the working group where the sides talk to each other. We have the trilateral contact group where the sides meet and discuss further and also at the very tactical operational level we have the sides still talking at times. And as long as that continues, the spirit of the Minsk arrangements are still there.”
The trilateral contact group, which includes representatives of Ukraine, the Russian Federation and the OSCE, as well as rebel officials from both Donetsk and Luhansk, has met five times since the February Minsk accord was signed -“The sides are willing to find a solution – that is expressed by their ability to talk to each other,” says Mr. Hug. “It’s not a complete breakdown. And this is not much, but it is enough to have hope that the process will continue and the sides will come to the conclusion that what is needed is a removal of the military logic and replace this logic with a political one, with a civilian one, so the sides can then agree on how this process can be politically driven forward.”
The rebel leadership in Donetsk agrees that dialogue is the way forward, but only on an even footing. ‘The process of
negotiation itself is very important,’ says the Eduard Basurin, the Deputy Defence Minister so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”. ‘I always said that the word is the strongest weapon, made by mankind. It’s a weapon which can kill or it can heal. We suggest that the Ukrainians should see us as equals and should talk to us as equals…..some common ground will be found to unite us, so that people won’t suffer.”
Two weeks ago, in another small sign of diplomatic progress two weeks ago, the rebel leadership initiated a surprise unilateral withdrawal from Shyrokne. It came after months of close combat between the two sides, positioned on either side of this small, but strategically important village. Rebels cited concern for local civilians caught in the crossfire of the prolonged battle for their land. A chess move, some might say. The OSCE has verified the withdrawal, but Ukrainian forces remain sceptical, saying only one rebel unit has pulled back so far.
Now it appears at least Shyrokne is calm. But with tensions high the impact of the spoken word appears to be limited.
On the front lines, fighting can escalate alarmingly fast.
Near Donetsk airport, the two sides are entrenched in fortifications, within visual range of each other. An exchange of small arms fire quickly turned into full fighting with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic grenade launchers and mortar attacks within the hour. “They fired first,’ said Sergei, a Russian-born rebel commander. ‘They shoot at us every day. If there’s a command to advance, then we’ll go further. But we have to obey the Minsk agreement.’
At the moment, that is. In recent days, rumours have been swirling in Donetsk about the future of the current leader of its so-called republic, Alexander Zakharchenko. Mr Zakharchenko has been a key participant in the Minsk dialogue, despite bullish assertions that he wants his rebel forces to take more territory. After missing a series of media engagements which fuelled speculation he could be replaced he finally reappeared in public at memorial at the MH17 crash site. Any change in leadership could alter the dynamics of diplomatic efforts. Despite all the talking, which ranges from informal agreements between battlefield commanders on the front lines, to official talks among Foreign Ministers in Paris, the chance of a genuinely peaceful resolution to the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine seems to be bleak. And if the dialogue does break down, both sides are more ready than ever to return to war.
All photographs by Kitty Logan
Kitty Logan is a freelance film maker/writer based in London