Ukraine agreed to cease fire with pro-Russian separatists on Saturday and establish a buffer zone thirty kilometers wide around the territory they control that will be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The promises are part of an accord that was reached in Belarus’ capital Minsk between representatives from Moscow and Kiev and envoys from the self-proclaimed people’s republics in the east of Ukraine that previously requested annexation by Russia.
Fighting nevertheless continued overnight in Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, while on Saturday, a third convoy of trucks Russia insists are carrying aid entered Ukraine without the government’s permission. Explosions and shelling were also heard in Donetsk, the largest industrial city in the east of the country and one of the insurrection’s two urban strongholds, the other being Luhansk farther north.
If the militants conquer Mariupol, they could establish an overland connection from the breakaway provinces in the east to the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea that Russia took from Ukraine in March.
Russia denies it actively supports the Ukrainian uprising but satellite images released by NATO last month, showing Russian artillery units crossing the border, and reports from foreign journalists in Ukraine belie that claim. Russian soldiers have also been apprehended in Ukraine.
In late August, the separatists seemed on the verge of defeat, having been driven back by the Ukrainian army into the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Renewed Russian support, including the arrival of armor and troops, then tilted the battle in favor of the rebels.
Under the Minsk agreement, foreign troops, mercenaries and weapons are to be withdrawn from Ukraine altogether.
Russian ambassador Mikhail Zurabov, who represented his country at the talks, said, “Mercenaries, it must be admitted, are present from both sides. And these facts have been repeatedly cited by our colleagues. Those whom we call mercenaries are present.”
The accords do not resolve the future status of Ukraine’s eastern territories where the majority of its Russian speakers reside. Parliament gave the regions around Donetsk and Luhansk “special status” on Tuesday although it is still unclear exactly what this will entail.
Russia has recommended the federalization of Ukraine, giving regions control over economic and even foreign policy. Authorities in Kiev see this as a ploy to permanently divide their country between a west that favors closer relations with the rest of Europe and the Russophone southeast — although Russia’s aggression appears to have changed public sentiment even there with a vast majority of Ukrainians now supporting a pro-Western policy.