22 Feb 2015

Is cease-fire in Ukraine really non-existent?

There’s no question that a lot of men and materiel have been on the move ever since the fall of Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine.

As we left that town we filmed a convoy of at least 15 grad missile launchers heading away from the frontlines, east, toward Russia.

You couldn’t help but wonder though, what their next destination might be? Because Debaltseve has never been the only fighting during this “ceasefire”.

The sound of incoming shells and Grads around the Donetsk suburbs has never really let up in a week of “ceasefire”.

Equally rebels are pressing forward north of the wrecked Donetsk Airport towards Pesky.

I heard the sound of shelling east of the southern port of Mariupol today and there were reports of fighting around Horlivka north of Donetsk.

So let us be clear: in at least three zones there is not and never has been any ceasefire worth the name.

Of course it suits France and Germany every bit as much as Russia to cling to the ever more desperate plea that it is all just about, sort of, broadly, mostly, generally working.

East of Mariupol you can hear the shelling today and see the fields track-marked by tanks heading west.

Today Ukraine again accused Russia of sending over its border both a road convoy armoured vehicles and a military train of tanks.

In Mariupol itself – a city of half a million – many are certain they will be attacked in earnest soon.

Clearly there are probing tactics by the rebels in towns and villages east of this deep water port and gigantic steel works.

And obviously Russians are involved in Ukraine. I know this because I have met them and they have told me they are Russians, from Russia, speaking Russian, using Russian weapons with Russian training and Russian tactics.

All of this I have personally seen and thus now have, perhaps, the phrase to best explain President Vladimir Putin’s tactics:

‘Implausible deniability’

What seems to be happening is that Russian are taking official time-out, on-paper “volunteers” and blistering into rebel units in small groups with their fighting vehicles according to need – and deploying,

How else do you explain Ukrainian regulars escaping the blitz of Debaltseve, talking time and again about, targeted, accurate shelling from people who really knew what they were about.

And then you have to mix that with Russian soldiers – Cossack and others – whom we have met at various locations. It all adds up: the presence of Russian regulars is obvious, abundant and ubiquitous.

Deniable? Yes because there will almost never be any proof as such – papers will no doubt show an individual has taken leave in order to “volunteer” etc.

Implausible? Yes because almost nobody on either side buys the Putin gag that Debaltseve fell to a bunch of tractor- drivers and coal-miners. So goes the war across various fronts.

Against that you have to set tactical moves like this weekend’s 200-strong prisoner exchange.

Of course that will happen – it looks good, implies being serious about fulfilling the terms of the Minsk “ceasefire” – but in reality it’s an easy hit.

Prisoners are an expensive and labour intensive headache when there is territory to be won out there and the motivation and momentum to take it.

So too heavy-weapons withdrawals – and so far we have only directly witnessed that for tactical reasons. True, there is today’s promise by the rebels that they will fulfil their side of the deal in pulling back tanks and artillery, but let’s await proof.

Yet… yet… every single day here the first thing my ears register after the alarm, is the sound of shelling.

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