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Playing with fire

Max Hoffmann / groNovember 19, 2015

Most tanks have apparently been withdrawn from the buffer zone in eastern Ukraine but not the heavy artillery, complains the OSCE. The truce is still on shaky ground. DW's Frank Hofmann reports from Kyiv.

Symbolbild Scharfschütze
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Zemlianichenko

Eastern Ukraine is far from Kyiv: there, barely anyone has witnessed the disputes that observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) have seen in the fought-over region along the border with Russia.

Almost every week, negotiators from Kiev, Moscow and the rebel strongholds Donetsk and Luhansk argue about the detailed implementation of the Minsk ceasefire agreement. It may look good on paper but in practice, when the OSCE observers arrive in eastern Ukraine, they face uncooperative local despots, as they did this week in the occupied territory of Luhansk.

"Representatives of the so-called Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) asked us to withdraw our two observers," says the deputy head of OSCE mission in Kiev, Alexander Hug. It is not up to the rebels to make a decision. But this shows that "the obstruction keeps reaching new heights." Just recently, on November 9, the warring parties agreed on withdrawal terms. "Since then, we have not been able to monitor a single weapon withdrawal from the buffer zone," said Hug.

Both sides are blocking the peace process

There is a lack of inventory lists which the Ukrainian army and the pro-Russian fighters must submit. Apparently, heavy artillery guns can be found along the front where they should no longer be according to the Minsk agreement. The fields 15 kilometers to west and to the east of the front must be demilitarized.

Ukraine Russland Krise OSCE Beobachter
An OSCE observer inspects the pro-Russian withdrawalImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Filippov

According to the recent agreements, the OSCE must also establish more bases in the cities of Horlivka and Debaltseve for their observers - but now the warlords on the rebel side are blocking the measures.

Furthermore, there is more shooting again – in various points to the northwest and west of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk. On Wednesday alone, OSCE observers in Donetsk registered "107 explosions in just one and a half hours." The truce is still on shaky ground.

Elections in eastern Ukraine in April

Earlier this week Ukraine threatened to send withdrawn weapons back to the front. "We have the ability to do so in a very short amount of time", said a spokesman of President Petro Poroshenko's military staff. "Our forces are ready to retaliate." This does not look like sustainable peace is being built up; especially since the touchy political points in the Minsk Agreement have not been implemented.

On December 31, Ukraine must regain control of its border with Russia although even the OSCE still cannot monitor the old border points. At the summit of German, Russian, French and Ukrainian leaders in Paris in early October, the group agreed on holding OSCE-approved elections in the occupied territories in February 2016. The date is already unrealistic. "I guess it will be April, as May would be a very bad signal," said a western diplomat who is familiar with the detailed Minsk negotiations.

Ostukraine Donezk Region Kinder spielen mit Waffen
For children in the Donbass region, the conflict is part of lifeImage: Getty Images/AFP/G. Savilov

Resistance to decentralization

But first, Ukrainian parliament in Kiev will have to agree on constitutional reforms that have been discussed for months and which aim to decentralize the country. But the vote will take place no earlier than the end of December.

President Poroshenko needs a two-thirds majority and thus, also votes from the camp of the ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. Over the weekend, demonstrators plan to commemorate the beginning of the protests two years ago. The pro-Europeans have been fighting many battles for a long time: against the tightly spun web of Ukrainian corruption, which includes elected officials, oligarch, judges, prosecutors, and also have been fighting as volunteers delivering supplies to the front, like food, clothing and medication. To them, eastern Ukraine is not far and their frustration is growing.