Donbas war: Pullback of forces in Donbas: Pains, gains and new threats

11:35 Oct. 9, 2016

Pullback of forces in Donbas: Pains, gains and new threats

'Danger, mines!' sign in Donbas, Ukraine (by SMM OSCE / Facebook)

Disengagement of forces gives no security guarantees for Ukraine and lays no responsibility on Kremlin

The process of the withdrawal of both Ukrainian and Russia-backed militant forces from the contact line in Donbas is being carried out, but slowly and problematically, and may bring new threats, Ukrainian politicians fear.

The Trilateral Contact Group working on settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine has reached a framework agreement on withdrawing troops and heavy weapons from a demarcation line in Donbas on September 21. The covenant provides for the withdrawal of forces at three key sectors in eastern Ukraine. The document was signed by Ukraine's representative Leonid Kuchma, OSCE special representative Martin Sajdik, and Russia's Boris Gryzlov in the name of militant groups.

The deal bans troops from both sides from entering the three areas, each of which comprises four square kilometers (1.5 square miles). These are Stanytsia Luhanska and Zolote in the Luhansk region, as well as Petrovske in the Donetsk region. All of them are important from the humanitarian point of view, former Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Ukraine, Yevhen Marchuk explained. According to him, if the first experience is successful, there will be a dozen or more areas to be cleared of troops in order to gradually complete the process of withdrawal of forces along the whole front line, which is 426 km.


Disengagement of troops areas on the Donbas situation map (red arrows)

But even at this point Ukrainian analysts warned that the withdrawal agreement is not a total guarantee of cease-fire in the pullout areas. And that is very true.

Already on September 30 it became clear that troop withdrawal failed to happen. Due to separatist shelling along the whole frontline, the withdrawal didn't take place, and delegates of the so-called "Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics" refused to participate in that day's Trilateral Contact Group meeting.

On October 1 militants finally pulled back their forces from the village of Zolote area, but refused to leave their strongholds near the villages of Stanytsia Luhanska and Petrivske. Next day Ukrainian army reported they suffered shelling every day of the agreed 7 days of a ‘complete cease-fire,' which was to be provided according to the framework agreement.

On Monday, October 3 Ukraine's military said the Russian-backed separatist forces attacked Ukrainian soldiers at a key area near Petrovske village. The attack took place right after the government forces were signaled to withdraw in accordance with the deal, reached by Ukraine, Russia and OSCE earlier. Kyiv demanded the proper reaction from OSCE SMM on this and other similar violations.

Finally, after a number of failures, the Contact Group set new dates for withdrawal of troops. The implementation of the Framework Decision on the pullback in Donbas was settled to be continued on October 7 and October 9 in the areas of Petrivske and Stanytsia Luhanska respectively.

The withdrawal will take place only in the absence of attacks, given the simultaneous pullback by the other side, and under the supervision of the OSCE SMM,' Darka Olifer, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian representative to the contact group Leonid Kuchma stressed.

She had to make this point because during the period September 22 through October 4 2016, Stanytsia Luhanska was fired on 18 times. It should be noted that attacks are carried out at night, when the situation is not controlled by the OSCE SMM.

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Only after that the disengagement of forces and hardware has been successfully held near the villages of Bohdanivka and Petrivske close to the contact line in Donetsk region, Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman for Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) issues Andriy Lysenko reported on Friday, October 7. Ukraine Today presented the photo report from the area, showing the pullback of Ukrainian troops.

Today, on October 9, was the day of the withdrawal of forces from the last of the three areas – Stanytsia Luhanska. Militants of so-called "Luhansk People's Republic" said they will begin the pullback on time – at least, that was the promise of Oleg Anaschenko, the head of the "LPR's People's Militia" (token name of the militant ‘2nd army cops,' actually commanded by Russian officers).

But this morning the head of the Luhansk military and civil administration Yuri Garbuz wrote on Facebook: "The withdrawal of Ukrainian in the village of Stanytsia Luhanska, scheduled for today, will not happen".

Later today Colonel Andriy Lysenko of Defense Ministry explained: "Given the systematic violations of the ‘regime of silence' and Framework Decision of Trilateral Contact Group on disengagement by the militants, the Armed Forces of Ukraine are forced to postpone the time of the withdrawal of troops near the village of Stanytsia Luhanska". He said about 16 violations of the ceasefire by Russian militants in Luhansk region, including massive artillery shelling in Popasna district near the freshly ‘demilitarized' area of Zolote. Militants fired more than 80 shells here, which must have needed several banned artillery batteries to be involved.

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Under such circumstances, especially given the systematic violations of all the agreements by Kremlin and its proxies, the whole idea of the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces face day by day stronger opposition in Ukrainian political elites. PM of ‘Petro Poroshenko's Block' Mustafa Nayem on Facebook called it a part of ‘brutal Minsk, imposed to Ukraine'.

According to his data, Ukraine was offered to begin the implementation of the political part of Minsk agreements without getting any form of control over the border, which is a crucial point for Ukrainian statehood, even after the withdrawal of forces from the two-kilometer zone along the contact line.

"In the proposed embodiment, there is no point on the withdrawal of Russian military equipment and troops. It is proposed to compensate it with the disarmament of the existing forces. This Ukrainian troops offered to be withdrawn to their barracks, while the military equipment on the occupied territories – did not withdraw! – just stored in specially protected sealed storage. The conditions contain no word on the control over the border. And not only by Ukrainian troops, but even the OSCE mission (!), which, I remind you, is specified in paragraph 4 of Minsk protocols. An additional condition, of course, is a truce. But at the same time – there are no guarantees of the armistice, and not a word about the consequences for the aggressor if the truce is violated," lawmaker says.

Nayem states: "Continued pressure on Ukraine in the issue of the implementation of the Minsk agreement in its current form is fraught with destabilization of the situation in the country, the consequences of which neither the Europeans nor the Americans stubbornly do not want to realize… Frankly: attempt to push through changes to the Constitution and the electoral law in the occupied territories in the Parliament without security guarantees today, could lead to protests, provocations and public opposition, that somehow delegitimize Parliament of Ukraine and that of President Petro Poroshenko".

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Next day he wrote the post Ukraine faced the first signs of such reaction. "Samopomich" parliamentary faction appealed to the President for the clarification of the status of negotiators in Minsk, representing Ukraine. This was announced by MP Taras Pastukh, reports.

"Ukrainian negotiators are people who have no official powers laid down by law. In fact, the decision on withdrawal of troops is taken by people who do not have any official authority. Who has delegated these people and the mandate to solve such a strategically important issue for the government?" the MP asks.

According to him, the withdrawal of troops will not solve the problem, but can lead to the formation of new buffer zones, which would be the next "quiet occupation" scenes.

"We have the sad experience of the adoption of the Minsk agreements that led to the deaths of soldiers in Debaltsevo, Ilovaysk and losses of Ukrainian territories. Who will be responsible for it? Today we offer a new scenario of withdrawal of troops that could lead to new tragedies," ‘Samopomich' stresses.

Lawmakers refer here to the Ilovaysk pocket, when Ukrainian units fighting the militants were rounded up and repelled by Russian invaders without any declaration of a war and taking responsibility, and the battle of Debaltseve, the town attacked by Kremlin forces despite the Minsk-2 agreements and even happening during the talks. 

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