The claim

factfiction_108x60“The actual ceasefire line is beyond Debaltseve, because that line is controlled by the rebels.”
Sergei Lavrov, 18 February 2015

The analysis

Is the latest ceasefire deal between pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and the Kiev government in tatters?

The guns were supposed to fall silent at 0000 hours on 15 February, but fighting has continued, most obviously in and around the town of Debaltseve.

If reports of rebels attacking Ukrainian troops with heavy weapons as they tried to withdraw from the town are correct, that looks like a breach of the ceasefire agreement.

But echoing the words of some separatist commanders, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said fighting in Debaltseve did not technically break the rules of the deal.

Others, including Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, and British and US diplomats, take the opposite view. Who’s right?


                        Grad rockets fired by pro-Russian separatists at Gorlivka, near Debaltseve, on 18 February

The analysis

The “Minsk II” agreement was hammered out during marathon talks in the Belarussian capital by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany. The full text can be read here.

At the time Debaltseve, an important transport hub that potentially connects large rebel-held areas, was the scene of heavy fighting between Ukraine’s army and rebel forces widely said to be supplied with men and weapons by Russia (though Moscow denies this).


This map comes from an anti-Kiev website but it appears to be accurate, based on cross-checking with what news organisations have said. The green line is the Russian border and the pink bits are under separatist control.

It shows the basic shape of what was the front line late last month. The big white bulge in the middle is the salient around Debaltseve controlled by the Ukrainians until the last few days.

19_map_zoomThe shape of the line matters because the Minsk deal states that Ukrainian forces had to withdraw all their heavy weapons from the “actual line of contact” when the midnight deadline arrived, creating a buffer zone around the de facto front line.

Unlike previous (failed) ceasefire protocols, which called for an immediate end to hostilities, Minsk II built in a delay of couple of days after the agreement was signed on 12 February.

There was therefore an incentive for both sides to carry on fighting to push the “actual line of contact” back, to try to win as much ground as possible.

Of course we weren’t hiding under the table when the talks were taking place, so there’s a big element of conjecture as to what actually happened.

Mr Lavrov has said that Russia told the Ukrainians that the rebels had surrounded a large number of government troops, and insisted his government had tried to avoid a bloodbath by negotiating a Ukrainian withdrawal.

He claims that Mr Poroshenko insisted “that there was no entrapment” and “our further attempts to discuss this issue somehow and to reach an understanding and a solution to this problem were not successful”.

That could explain why Debaltseve is not explicitly named in the ceasfire deal. In fact, the wording of the public document is exremely vague and it only refers to a ceasefire “in particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine”.

Professor Gwendolyn Sasse from Oxford University told us: “Poroshenko and Putin didn’t agree on Debaltseve and the vague reference disguises that somewhat.

“One can read the first point in the agreement about postponing the start of the ‘immediate ceasefire’ by several days as space for the separatists to capture Debaltseve.”

Tarik Cyril Amar, a historian from Columbia University, has said the agreement had “a lot of in-built weaknesses”, and agrees that the delay was deliberately designed to let both sides grab more territory.

He thinks the negotiators were expecting Debaltseve to fall to the separatists imminently, and it was inconvenient that the Ukrainians were still holding on to parts of the town after the ceasefire came into force at midnight on Saturday.

So there are really two questions. The first is whether was the town under rebel control when the clock struck midnight? That is still the subject of a war of words between Russia and Ukraine.

Sergey Lavrov - David Sanakoev meeting in Moscow

Mr Lavrov (above) and President Vladimir Putin have repeatedly said Debaltseve was “encircled”, the implication being that it was completely surrounded by rebels and basically part of rebel-held territory.

Mr Poroshenko says: “Debaltseve was under our control. It was never encircled. Our troops and formations have left in an organised and planned manner.”

The second question is whether the rebels had the right to carry on fighting if Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve were indeed cut off and essentially trapped behind enemy lines.

Prof Sasse told us the continued fighting in the area “clearly goes against the spirit of the agreement”.

She added: “Lavrov is trying to be legalistic – a non-reference to Debaltseve in the agreement means the agreement hasn’t been violated. This has been the Russian approach before.”

Britain’s ambassador to the UN, Mark Lyall Grant, said it was “totally unacceptable” that rebel leaders had said the ceasefire did not apply to Debaltseve.

EU diplomat Federica Mogherini said fighting in the town was a “clear violation of the ceasefire”.

The verdict

Mr Lavrov’s view contradicts the spirit of the ceasefire, which obviously calls for an end to the fighting.

On the other hand, the agreement was worded in such a vague way – with no mention of the fate of Debaltseve – that it is open to a number of interpretations.

It seems clear that for whatever reason, Moscow and Kiev could not reach a diplomatic agreement over the town, with fatal consequences for some of the men left to fight over it.

Russia and its opponents are probably never going to agree over whether continued fighting in Debaltseve was a breach of the agreement, but it may not matter very much.

There are many other points agreed in the deal that have not happened either. The OSCE says it has not observed the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the front line yet, which was probably the most important item.

But all sides say the fragile truce is still alive, and there are reports that the ceasefire still holds along much of the front.

Prof Sasse sees some room for optimism in the fact that Russia at least appears to be taking Minsk II seriously as the starting point for dialogue.

There was more evidence of that today when Moscow complained that Mr Poroshenko’s calls for UN peacekeepers to be deployed in eastern Ukraine fell outside the specific terms agreed at Minsk.

She said: “The fact that Lavrov (and others) emphasise that the agreement has not been violated suggests they see value in it, have an interest in continuing negotiations on that basis.

“It may also suggest that Moscow has less influence over local developments than we think.”