Ukraine 'Starting To Withdraw Weapons' From Front Line
February 26, 2015
The Ukrainian military said it was starting to withdraw heavy weapons from the front line in its conflict with Russian-backed rebels on February 26 after reporting that there were no combat fatalities for a second straight 24-hour period.
The announcements raise hopes that a European-brokered cease-fire deal agreed in the Belarusian capital two weeks ago could be taking hold, after the separatists initially ignored the truce and seized the strategic town of Debaltseve in a major offensive.
'Implementing the agreements reached in Minsk on February 12, Ukraine is beginning the withdrawal of 100-mm guns from the line of contact today,' the military said in a statement. 'This is the first step in the pullback of heavy weapons.'
Kyiv had been unwilling to begin its withdrawal because of what it said were persistent rebel attacks in violation of the cease-fire that was to have taken effect on Febrtuary 15 under the Minsk deal.
The agreement was brokered by the leaders of Germany and France in a bid to end a conflict that has killed more than 5,600 people in eastern Ukraine since April and raised tensions between Russia and the West to their highest point since the Cold War.
It commits the sides to withdraw weapons with a caliber of 100 millimeters or more to create a security zone at least 50 kilometers wide -- and up to 140 kilometers for some missile systems -- within 14 days.
Hours before Ukraine's announcement, Russia called Kyiv's demand for a full cease-fire before it could start the pullback 'ridiculous.'
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference on February 26 that 'Everyone understands that there isn't an ideal truce and an ideal cease-fire regime.'
Hitting back at Western accusations that Russia and the rebels have flagrantly violated the Minsk deal, Lavrov lashed out at U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other officials over warnings that new sanctions could be imposed over Moscow's interference in Ukraine.
Lavrov spoke after Kerry told U.S. lawmakers on February 25 that 'neither Russia nor the forces it is supporting have come close to complying with their commitments' under the deal.
'As for the declarations by Western officials, including John Kerry and [European Council President] Donald Tusk, who have threatened new sanctions, I think this is easy to explain: They are trying to whip up hysteria and draw attention away from the need to implement the Minsk agreements,' Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow.
He said such remarks reflected 'a lack of desire' in 'the United States and the EU to achieve what we agreed upon in Minsk on February 12.'
Western officials say it is Moscow and the Russian-backed separatists holding parts of eastern Ukraine who have failed to implement the cease-fire.
Kerry accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of destabilizing Ukraine through 'land grabs,' and said: 'We are poised yet to do another round [of sanctions] potentially, depending on what happens with [the cease-fire] in these next few days.'
Immediately after the cease-fire was agreed, the rebels ignored it in order to continue an offensive and take Debaltseve, an important rail junction between the separatist-held provincial capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk, from government forces.
Fighting has since subsided.
Ukrainian military spokesman Anatoliy Stelmakh said earlier on February 26 that there were relatively few cease-fire violations during the night, but that they included shelling of the village of Pisky on the outskirts of Donetsk.
Kyiv and Western governments believe Russia wants to weaken Ukraine and keep it out of NATO by maintaining a 'frozen conflict' in the east for years to come.
They fear Putin and the rebels could push to seize a swath of territory stretching from Donetsk to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Moscow illegally annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.
Kerry told told the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives on February 25 that 'In Luhansk, and Donetsk, and now in Debaltseve, he [Putin] has empowered, encouraged, and facilitated directly land grabs in order to try to destabilize Ukraine itself.'
He said that 'if failure [to adhere to the cease-fire] continues, there will be further consequences -- consequences that would place added strains on Russia's weakened economy.'
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also said on February 25 that Moscow would face more European Union sanctions if the separatists attack the Kyiv-controlled strategic port of Mariupol.
Top U.S. officials have lashed out at Putin and his ministers in recent days as the fighting has continued in Ukraine, with Kerry on February 24 directly accusing Russian leaders of lying 'to my face' over the conflict.
Asked if she believed Putin's assertions that Putin wanted peace in Ukraine, national security adviser Susan Rice retorted: 'How dumb do I look?'
'No. In all seriousness, no. One cannot accept Vladimir Putin at his word because his actions have belied his words repeatedly, particularly in the context of Ukraine,' Rice told PBS television.
The OSCE mission to Ukraine said on February 25 that it could still not confirm a pullback of heavy weapons from the front line.
Rebels claimed they were withdrawing artillery, rocket launchers, and tanks from some areas, and journalists saw a column of howitzer guns being driven along a road near the separatist stronghold of Donetsk.
OSCE monitors said the warring sides had not provided the information needed to determine what, if any, arms withdrawals have occurred.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, in an interview with CNN on February 25, accused OSCE monitors of 'refusing' to observe the withdrawal of heavy weaponry by rebels in the Donetsk region.
But the head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Ilkka Kanerva, said the separatists continued to impose restrictions on the monitors' movements.
Kanerva said in a statement that he was 'profoundly disturbed' by the rebels' 'continuing refusal to grant unlimited, safe access to OSCE monitors on the ground in Ukraine and their violations of the Minsk Package of Measures.'
Ukraine has warned that it will not carry out an arms pullback until a full and 'comprehensive' cease-fire is observed and has accused Russia of continuing to send military hardware in to bolster the rebels.
Meanwhile, top U.S. defense leaders told Congress that the Obama administration is still debating whether to provide lethal defensive arms to Ukraine.
Russia used troops and a referendum to seize control of Crimea after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv in February 2014 following months of huge protests over his decision to scrap plans for a landmark agreement with the European Union and tighten ties with Moscow instead.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, BBC, TASS, Interfax, and UNIAN
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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