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Ukraine's Ceasefire Is Shot Down in Flames

Kiev forces and pro-Russia rebels had announced a ceasefire. But then a helicopter was downed, killing nine and damaging the peace process.

by Alec Luhn
Jun 25 2014, 10:15pm

Photo via Getty

The ceasefire between government forces and pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine has effectively gone down in flames, just like the military helicopter that the rebels shot down on Tuesday evening. That the truce agreed on Monday has fallen apart so quickly suggests that the forces on the ground don't always listen to their commanders in Kiev and Donetsk. It could also indicate that the leaders of both sides are not yet willing to compromise.

In a phone call today, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to take measures to preserve the ceasefire and called for further negotiations. Also on Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Putin to publicly call on the rebels to put down their arms. But the ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine and the declaration of an end to the ceasefire by a key rebel leader seem to have killed chances for a meaningful truce.

Wearing a jean jacket and his customary Soviet-era Makarov pistol in a hip holster, an unshaven Alexander Borodai, the self-styled prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), today told journalists that the agreement reached during negotiations between representatives of Kiev, Moscow, and the rebels on Monday was a “fiction” that “has now been aborted.” Further negotiations are not possible until Kiev removes its forces from eastern Ukraine, he said.

“There is no ceasefire because of multiple violations across almost the whole front line,” Borodai added, blaming Ukrainian forces for breaking the ceasefire. “Moreover, there is an active deployment and build-up of our opponent's forces, including near Donetsk, and for that reason I don't see a possibility to continue any negotiations.”

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The surprise talks on Monday had given a much-needed boost to the flagging peace process, as they brought together separatist leaders and representatives of the Ukrainian government for the first time. President Poroshenko, who announced a unilateral week-long ceasefire on Friday and demanded that rebels put down their weapons in exchange for limited amnesty, previously said that Kiev would not “hold negotiations with terrorists.”

On Tuesday evening, however, a column of black smoke marred the blue sky above Sloviansk after rebels shot down a Ukrainian Mi-8 helicopter with a handheld surface-to-air missile, killing nine servicemen and significantly setting back the peace process.

As usual, both sides blamed each other for attacking first. Although Borodai declined to comment on the incident, Andrei Purgin, first deputy prime minister of the DPR, said the downing of the helicopter was “part of our response to aggression from the Ukrainian side,” including an alleged attempt by 150 Ukrainian soldiers to “storm Donetsk.” Meanwhile, Dmitry Tymchuk, a defense analyst with close ties to Kiev, said that the rebel side was responsible for breaking the ceasefire and accused Moscow of turning Monday's negotiations into a “farce.”

Poroshenko said the rebels were responsible for breaking the June 20 ceasefire 52 times, as a result of which 18 people died and 27 were injured. The official death count in eastern Ukraine has now jumped well above 300 and, in reality, is likely even higher. The Red Cross has recognized the rebels as participants in an official conflict, Borodai said, showing off a letter from the international organization.

Borodai also said fighting had broken out in nearby Karlovka, and that clashes were reported today in several cities across the east. A rebel in Sloviansk who would identify himself only as Vasya told VICE News that his checkpoint had come under mortar fire during the night and this morning. On Tuesday, he had shown off fresh craters from what rebels said was unprovoked shelling from the Ukrainian side.

Government forces have enjoyed a distinct advantage in firepower, although Borodai and a representative of the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) both said their forces have several tanks that they took from the Ukrainians. Kiev and NATO have said that three tanks spotted in the region last week likely came across the Russian border.

Serious doubts remain about whether either side can actually enforce a truce. Conversations with rebels in Sloviansk suggested no order to cease fire had ever come down to them. Instead, they argued that they never attack first anyway. “Nothing has changed for us,” Vasya said. “There is no ceasefire.”

On Tuesday, a rebel who goes by the nom de guerre Murmansk, after asking me for more information on Monday's announcement of a bilateral ceasefire, explained that he and his comrades wouldn't be opposed to a truce but would not put down their weapons until Kiev removed its forces. The village of Semyonovka, where he is stationed, has been largely reduced to rubble by Ukrainian shelling, with only a few dozen old-timers struggling on amid the wreckage.

Moreover, both sides seem loosely organized and fragmented, with no strong central command structure. Many different rebel groups, including the Russian Orthodox Army, Oplot and the Vostok Battalion, have sprung up around individual strongmen. Even after Borodai announced an end to the truce, a spokesman of the LPR, which has just entered a federation with the DPR, suggested that its forces would continue to observe the ceasefire until its formal end on June 27.

After similar statements from other Luhansk leaders, Tymchuk wrote that the leaders weren't in control of the various rebel units.

“In these conditions, any negotiation process with the LPR and DPR loses its meaning, since we're talking about only two out of dozens of disparate terrorist groups,” he stated.

Yet the same argument could be made about the government forces. A large part of Kiev's military operation is made up of recently organized national guard units and a motley assortment of volunteer battalions, some of which have drawn men from nationalist groups and the club-wielding self-defense forces of this winter's Euromaidan. VICE News witnessed masked members of one such battalion beat and detain an unarmed man at gunpoint in a town near Luhansk, explaining that they were taking him in for questioning because he had robbed a store.

Asked whether the fragmentation of rebel forces had led to the breakdown of the ceasefire, Borodai said that even if these units “are not totally organized, they all formed up to fight.”

Russian commentators have argued that the conflict is advantageous for the Kiev government as it distracts from Ukraine's struggling economy and harsh austerity measures. At the same time, rebel forces have enjoyed a stream of new recruits as civilian casualties from the “anti-terrorist operation” mount.

Alexei Melnik, a Kiev-based defense analyst, admitted that the Ukrainian forces had “problems with coordination,” but argued that the failed ceasefire showed that it is the separatists who are not truly committed to peace.

“It demonstrated that the other side with which Kiev is forced to negotiate is not able to make an agreement, and the people standing behind it are not interested in a ceasefire or de-escalation. That's first and foremost Moscow,” he told VICE News.

As the unofficial third player in the conflict, which has been egged on by Russian state media, the Kremlin has officially supported Poroshenko's peace plan but also briefly renewed a troop build-up on the Ukrainian border last week. For now, its game seems to be about avoiding further economic sanctions, while keeping the conflict simmering to win concessions from Kiev — or even preventing Ukraine from joining NATO.

Catch up on VICE News' Russian Roulette dispatches from Ukraine here.

Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn