(Bloomberg) — Pro-Russian separatists shelled Ukrainian
troops nine times in 2 1/2 hours after a cease-fire took effect,
the government said, while quiet was reported in some areas.
Government forces maintained their cease-fire, military
spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov said in a Facebook posting. The
rebels also halted fire, Interfax reported, citing a defense
ministry representative of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s
Fighting stopped in at least six eastern cities after the
deadline, according to residents and a military official. Among
them was Debaltseve, the railway hub that was a scene of violent
clashes Saturday, Seleznyov said.
As the deadline hit, President Petro Poroshenko said during
a televised speech that he ordered a cease-fire along the front
lines. He said he hoped the rebels would abide.
“Unfortunately, the peace process is now under high
threat,” he said. “The whole world held its breath and is
waiting for tomorrow’s dawn.”
The deal brokered by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine,
Germany and France marks the latest effort to defuse the almost
one-year crisis that’s killed more than 5,400 people and
devastated eastern Ukraine. Similar agreements have failed.
Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the Donetsk Republic,
signed a decree ordering his forces to cease hostilities, though
they would be allowed to respond to attacks from government
troops. Separatist forces in the nearby region of Luhansk also
received orders to cease fire, according to Interfax.
Rebels and government forces made the last push Saturday to
maximize territory under their control before the respite, as
fighting raged around Debaltseve.
Poroshenko warned that Ukraine will impose martial law if
peace doesn’t take hold. At least seven Ukrainian soldiers were
killed and 23 wounded in the previous 24 hours, with another
death reported near Mariupol.
The mounting doubts over the truce’s viability were
reflected in Ukraine’s foreign debt. The country’s benchmark
dollar-denominated bonds maturing July 2017 closed 2.4 cents
lower at 54.2 cents on Friday, ending a seven-day rally. Russian
markets showed signs of optimism that the country will be able
to avert tougher sanctions for its role in the conflict, with
stocks and bonds extending a second week of gains and the ruble
Separatist forces, backed by Russian regular troops, pushed
to seize more territory before midnight, said Andriy Lysenko, a
Ukrainian military spokesman.
Rockets struck the government-held town of Artemivsk,
located about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the front line,
according to local police. It was the second consecutive day of
U.S. intelligence and military officials remain convinced
that even if the cease-fire takes hold, the separatist offensive
will resume at some point and continue at least until Debaltseve
and Mariupol are under Russian control.
Debaltseve is a vital link between Donetsk and Luhansk, the
officials said Saturday, speaking on condition of anonymity to
discuss intelligence assessments. Mariupol, a port city on the
Sea of Azov, is the last major obstacle to opening a land route
between Russia and Crimea.
Debaltseve, a pocket of government-held territory inside
areas controlled by separatists, was targeted by rebel assaults
before the cease-fire, according to Ukraine’s military. The town
and its environs were repeatedly attacked by artillery and
tanks, with separatists also shelling areas near Mariupol, the
National Security and Defense Council said Saturday.
The U.S. State Department released images that it called
“one of several pieces of credible evidence” that Russia has
deployed large numbers of artillery and rocket launchers around
“We are confident that these are Russian military, not
separatist systems,” Jen Psaki, a department spokeswoman, said
in an e-mail.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov on
Friday denied U.S. claims that the military had air-defense
systems deployed near Debaltseve, which he said was as reliable
as “reading tea leaves,” Interfax reported.
In his televised address, Poroshenko said he wants
officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe dispatched to Debaltseve immediately to monitor the
Poroshenko on Saturday spoke with U.S. President Barack
Obama, as well as with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and
French President Francois Hollande, two of the brokers of the
Minsk deal. The leaders expressed concern over the showdown in
Debaltseve, according to statements on the Ukrainian president’s
website. Obama also spoke with Merkel, the White House said.
The rebels demanded the surrender of Ukrainian forces
fighting in Debaltseve and said they seized parts of the town
and nearby areas.
“Why should we let them out? We are giving them the chance
to stay alive — this is our enemy, who came onto our land,”
said Eduard Basurin, a defense ministry official from the
Donetsk People’s Republic. “Yes, we will carry out our
commitments, but if the enemy advances in our direction, they
will be repulsed as needed.”
As tensions persisted on the ground, European Union leaders
started to draw up further sanctions to prod Russia to enforce
the truce. More than 10,000 Russian troops are in the country,
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Petro Mekhed told reporters in
Ukraine, the U.S., the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization say Russia is supporting the separatists with
hardware, cash and troops — accusations the Kremlin denies.
Russia says Ukraine is waging war on its own citizens and
discriminates against Russian speakers, a majority in the
Donetsk and Luhansk regions.