Despite Lull in Fighting, Ukraine Fears Rebel Attack

Ukraine continues to withdraw from the frontlines but fears another assault on the port city of Mariupol.

After a two-day lull in fighting, Ukraine reported on Friday that three of its servicemen had died battling pro-Russian separatists in the southeast of the country. President Petro Poroshenko said in a televised speech that even “under the most optimistic scenario,” Russia would remain a “military threat” to his nation.

Despite the three deaths, Ukraine said it would continue to withdraw its heavy weapons from the frontlines in compliance with a truce French and German leaders helped negotiate in the Belarusian capital Minsk two weeks ago.

The rebels only started pulling back their artillery on Tuesday after capturing the strategic rail town of Debaltseve, situated between their Donetsk and Luhansk strongholds near the Russian border.

Ukraine fears the rebels will take advantage of the ceasefire to regroup and prepare an attack on Mariupol. The city of half a million has come under sporadic separatist attack since the beginning of this year.

Situated on the Sea of Azov, Mariupol is vital to Ukraine’s grain and steel exports. Claiming it for the separatists could allow Russia to build a land bridge from its territory to the Crimea, the peninsula it annexed from Ukraine last year.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said on Wednesday an attack on Mariupol would “change everything” and warned that his government could call for additional sanctions.

European Union countries and the United States embargoed Russian businesses with close ties to President Vladimir Putin’s regime after the Crimean annexation.

If the fighting does not expand, the War in Donbas looks likely to stalemate into another “frozen conflict” on Russia’s periphery.

The self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics held elections last year that showed popular support for independence. Although the votes fell short of democratic standards and the outcome was recognized only by Russia, foreign journalists reported great enthusiasm for them, especially among older residents. Opinion polls have also shown older Ukrainians, especially those who live in the industrial and Russophone east, disproportionately regret the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union to which Ukraine belonged.

In parliamentary elections a week earlier, the rest of the country supported parties that called for closer relations with the rest of Europe, independence from Russia and a united Ukraine.

Earlier, Poroshenko had signed the association agreement with the European Union that triggered Russia’s intervention in its former vassal state in early 2014.

Underlining the difficulty of restoring Ukrainian sovereignty in the Donbas region, Interfax-Ukraine reported on Friday that the Luhansk separatists had disconnected their power supply from Ukraine and switched to getting electricity from Russia.