Leaders Agree To Push Forward With Ukraine Cease-Fire

KIEV, Ukraine -- The leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia agreed in a telephone call Thursday on a new push to impose a tattered cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, a day after Kiev gave up a strategic rail hub to Russia-backed rebels following days of heavy fighting.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke to the leaders of Russia, France and Germany on Thursday about the state of affairs in east Ukraine.

Kiev and its Western backers had denounced the separatists’ drive as a violation of the deal.

But as fighting subsided along much of the front after the Ukrainian retreat from Debaltseve on Wednesday, none of the parties appeared willing to declare the deal dead.

“The four leaders agreed to rigorously implement the entirety of the package of measures agreed February 12 in Minsk,” the French presidency said in a statement.

The agreement, reached after marathon overnight talks in the Belarusian capital between the four leaders, calls for a cease-fire and pullback of heavy weapons by both sides, to be followed by political changes in Ukraine to offer greater autonomy to the separatist regions.

“Violations of the cease- fire observed in recent days were condemned,” Mr. Hollande’s office said.

The statement didn't specify which side was responsible or who on the conference call had condemned them.

A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the leaders called the fighting in Debaltseve a “serious breach” of the truce.

“They agreed that immediate concrete steps to a complete implementation of the cease-fire and the withdrawal of heavy weaponry under the inspection of the OSCE is necessary,” he said, referring to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has the job of monitoring the cease-fire.

Besides the cease-fire, the deal also calls for a prisoner exchange by March 7.

“The prisoner exchange must also begin.

Putin agreed to influence the separatists in this regard,” the spokesman said.

The Kremlin’s account of the call made no mention of Debaltseve or cease-fire violations, noting the civilian casualties had declined and the need for further steps to implement the rest of the Minsk deal. 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called on the other leaders “not to pretend that the events in Debaltseve comply with the Minsk agreements” and appealed for specific assurances from his Western partners on their reactions to any future violations, his office said in a statement.

The U.S. had said it would consider granting Mr. Poroshenko’s long-standing request for lethal military aid if the Minsk deal failed.

In recent days, U.S. officials have suggested no decision has yet been made.

Moscow has warned that it would view such assistance as a direct threat to its security.

In Ukraine, officials on both sides said shelling was continuing to ebb, although scattered attacks were reported around the airport in the separatist capital of Donetsk and outside Mariupol, a port city held by Kiev.

A military spokesman said that 14 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in the last 24 hours but didn’t specify where Rebel leaders said they had begun pulling back heavy weapons from some parts of the front, but that couldn’t be independently verified.

Ukrainian officials said they were pulling their forces back to new defensive lines after the withdrawal from Debaltseve.

An OSCE official said their monitors had so far seen no evidence of pullbacks by either side.

In the phone call, the leaders agreed it would take place after the cease-fire had taken hold across the entire front, the Ukrainian president’s office said.

Mr. Poroshenko said late Wednesday he would appeal for the deployment of peacekeepers from either the United Nations or the European Union to police the front line between Kiev’s forces and the separatists, as well as along the section of the border between Russia and Ukraine that the rebels control.

 Moscow and the rebels were quick to denounce that proposal as an attempt to destroy the Minsk agreement.

Mr. Poroshenko’s office said that during the telephone conference he called for the issue to be addressed in upcoming talks between foreign ministers.

The leaders called on both sides to ensure access to hot spots for OSCE inspectors.

So far, rebels have blocked the OSCE from Debaltseve, citing security concerns, although rebel officials said Thursday they would allow them in soon since they have full control over the city.

Col. Andriy Lysenko, a military spokesman in Kiev, played down the Kiev retreat, saying Debaltseve “has ceased to exist as a strategic point,” and that the rail yards there “have been turned into the surface of the moon” by weeks of fighting.

Meanwhile, economic tensions between Kiev and the rebels flared again.

Separatist leaders accused Kiev of turning off gas supplies to the region.

There was no immediate confirmation from Kiev, but the government has steadily cut off economic links with the regions in recent months.

The Minsk deal calls for those to be restored once the cease-fire takes hold.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told his government to propose ways to supply Russian fuel to those regions “as humanitarian aid.”

One of the rebel capitals, Donetsk, said it would soon be able to shift to supplies from Russia, while an official in the other separatist region, Luhansk, said it faced a possible “ice age” if fuel supplies aren’t restored soon.

Source: The Wall Street Journal