22/Jan/2015 // 259 Viewers
BERLIN – Diplomats from Russia and
Ukraine agreed Wednesday on a dividing line from where both sides should
pull back their heavy weapons, just hours after separatist forces
deployed more arms and manpower to an emerging flashpoint in eastern
Germany's Foreign Minister, 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 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 kilometers
(9 miles) on either side of the line, though there was no agreement on a
withdrawal of all troops.
"Today we have finally agreed that the demarcation line mentioned in
the Minsk agreement is the line from where the withdrawal of heavy
weapons needs to take place now," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter
Steinmeier told reporters after the meeting in Berlin.
Steinmeier said the agreement had been "difficult work" and the
talks, which follow a fruitless round of negotiations last week, were
"testing the patience of all involved." The parties also agreed that the
contact group of Ukraine, Russia, and the 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
Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey 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 Wednesday, Lavrov had urged measures to contain the unfolding
unrest, but said nothing about the rebels surrendering territory they
acquired in violation of a peace deal concluded in September in Minsk,
Belarus. Ukraine says separatist forces that are backed by Russia have
overstepped agreed-upon front-line boundaries between the warring sides
by 190 square miles.
A fresh separatist advance is under way in an area northwest of
Luhansk, the second-largest rebel-held city. The fighting is centered on
two checkpoints along a strategic highway.
Ukraine's Defense Ministry said one of those positions, Checkpoint
31, had been abandoned but that operations were underway to retake it.
The separatist forces appear well-poised to take the upper hand, however.
An Associated Press reporter saw nine Gvozdika self-propelled
howitzers and six anti-tank cannons moving near the town of Perevalsk
around midday. A rebel militiaman with the convoy who declined to give
his name said the armament was heading in the direction of Checkpoint
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.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of providing material support to
the separatists, which Moscow denies. The sheer amount of sophisticated
heavy weaponry in the hands of the insurgents, however, is widely seen
as overwhelming evidence of direct involvement by Russia.
Speaking during a visit to Kiev, U.S. Army Europe commander Lt. Gen.
Ben Hodges said the quantity of Russian equipment being provided to
separatists had doubled between the September cease-fire deal and
"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
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
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 to 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.
The fighting in the Luhansk region follows intense clashes over the
weekend for control of the airport on the fringes of the main rebel
city, Donetsk. The terminal — once the pride of the city but now reduced
to a burned-out shell — is of limited strategic value. Now, however, it
has acquired symbolic value because of the Ukrainian forces' stand
against waves of separatist attacks.
The fierce airport battle shattered the relative tranquility that had
been in place since a new truce was reached in early December.
Shelling in and around Donetsk has abated since the weekend, although
artillery strikes have continued to claim civilian casualties. A shell
that fell in Donetsk's Kirov district Wednesday left two dead.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said there has been an
increase in separatist violence, including rocket attacks on the Donetsk
airport in recent days, and separatist seizures of more territory.
"We've also seen reports that Russia has moved two tactical
battalions into Ukraine," she said in Washington. "We can confirm that
Russia continues to move tanks, armored vehicles, trucks artillery
pieces and other military equipment to deployment sites near the
Russia-Ukraine border, which serve as staging points before transporting
military equipment to pro-Russia separatists. That is something we're
Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. was concerned that the
separatists were attacking the town of Debaltseve, about 45 miles east
"This is a very blatant land grab and it is in direct contravention to the Minsk Agreement that they signed up to," Kerry said.
Lavrov said the continuing truce violations were rooted in the
failure to abide by the line of contact between the two sides. He said
Russian President Vladimir Putin had written to Poroshenko with a
proposal to use the original boundary for the withdrawal of heavy
Under the September agreement, Ukrainian and separatist forces agreed to pull back their artillery by 19 miles.
Poroshenko said a political dialogue must follow to help stabilize
the situation and called for holding local elections in eastern Ukraine.
Lavrov said Russia would welcome municipal elections there.
Ukraine is trying to cope with a resource-draining conflict while
simultaneously fending off the prospect of total economic collapse.
International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde said Poroshenko
asked the organization to replace Ukraine's current $17 billion bailout
package with a new one.
"We will consult with the IMF executive board on the (Ukrainian) authorities' request," Lagarde said.