Before the ceasefire signed in Belarusian capital Minsk was to come into effect at midnight Saturday, shelling was reported from the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine on Friday. The practical problems likely to be encountered in implementing the deal negotiated by Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France pose a big risk. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose shuttle diplomacy is largely credited with the deal, warned the ceasefire is merely “a glimmer of hope” and will fall flat if actions don’t follow words. The uncertainty owes to the intent of Moscow, which denies being a direct party to the conflict and insists it’s only a “guarantor”.
More than 5,400 people have been killed since fighting began in April 2014, with an estimated 5.2 million living in the conflict zone. The current deal betters the failed agreement of September 2014 by setting a precise time for the ceasefire, widening the buffer zones and asking for the withdrawal of heavy weaponry and troops on both sides. If Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared cheerful, the reason could be that Russia and the rebels are making tactical gains, with the Ukrainian military having to give up its current line of control and Kiev compelled to introduce a new constitution allowing rebel regions to form their own police, appoint their judges and conduct trade with Russia. But, significantly, the deal upholds Ukrainian sovereignty, with full control of rebel-held areas and the border with Russia set to return to Kiev by end-2015, post a full political settlement. Also, the IMF’s $17.5 billion reform package would enable Kiev to reopen banks and transfer pensions to the east. So, Ukraine may be the strategic winner.
Russia’s economic problems, induced by Western sanctions, and Moscow’s inability to prop up the Donbas region combined with EU leaders’ sense of urgency, given the turn for the worse the conflict had taken recently. Putin may also have calculated that reintegrating the rebel regions with Ukraine alone could renew his leverage over its politics.