Editor's Note: At least for now, forces loyal to Kiev and pro-Russia separatists appear to be adhering to the cease-fire agreement that went into effect at midnight local time Feb. 15. According to reports from the ground and statements by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, most sectors along the demarcation line have been quiet, with the main exception being the area around Debaltseve. This was somewhat expected, though, because cease-fires rarely take effect instantaneously and fighting tends to taper down until it reaches a negligible level. As long as heavily contested areas remain vulnerable, especially the Ukrainian positions in Debaltseve, attempts to gain or maintain control of them will remain a potential source of new fighting that could eventually threaten the stability of the entire cease-fire agreement.
Coming into effect at midnight, the cease-fire was broadly recognized by both sides. Monitors and locals noted only about a dozen violations, most of which were concentrated in a single sector along the front line near the separatist-held town of Stakhanov. According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an "uncontrolled Russian cossack unit" was responsible for the fighting. This was not a solid indicator, however, because throughout the conflict, after dark has typically been quiet. Both sides have very limited night combat capabilities and limit their operations to the day time.
When daylight returned, fighting picked up in different locations, most notably around Debaltseve. Last week’s Minsk agreement failed to resolve the town's fate, and in the days leading up to the actual start of the cease-fire, separatist forces backed by Russian military units pushed hard to isolate Ukrainian positions there, attempting to force their withdrawal.
This assault has continued, with separatist and Russian forces continuing to fire artillery at the Ukrainian positions in Debaltseve. Pro-Russia forces managed to gain terrain, dividing the area around the town into several smaller pockets, and have started fighting their way into the town itself. Forcing Ukrainian troops to withdraw from Debaltseve would enable separatist units to straighten out their defensive lines and push Kiev's forces even further back. Now that the cease-fire is in place, however, a spike in violence could threaten the agreement's overall success.
Western leaders stressed the importance of adhering to the latest agreement and have indicated over the past week that should it fail, their governments will have to increase pressure on Russia. A few hours before the deal was set to take effect, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande spoke on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin and urged him to respect the pact. That same day, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to discuss the cease-fire and situation in Debaltseve. All of the parties involved have indicated that they will stay in touch to follow up on the cease-fire and could potentially meet again if necessary. The diplomatic effort to make the latest cease-fire a successful one is still in full swing.
In a direct reference to U.S. President Barack Obama’s earlier announcement that he was considering arming Ukraine, on Feb. 13, the U.S. government reiterated that all options are still on the table and noted that, ahead of the cease-fire, Russia deployed new artillery and multiple launch rocket systems to Debaltseve.
Stratfor has complied the following chronology of the events leading up to the Feb. 15 cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and will continue to monitor developments.
Sept. 5, 2014: Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists began a tenuous cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. Although the cease-fire was officially reached under the framework of the contact group in Minsk — consisting of representatives from Kiev, Moscow, Russia-backed separatist groups, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin laid the groundwork for the agreement in a Sept. 3 bilateral phone conversation. Simultaneously, the NATO summit in Wales closed without any significant offers of aid to Ukraine from the alliance, further frustrating Kiev's position as it faces tactical defeats in eastern Ukraine and is forced to field hastily trained and heavily demoralized forces. Poroshenko has little choice but to initiate what will be a long, drawn-out negotiation process that could ultimately transform the crisis in eastern Ukraine into a frozen conflict.
Sept. 19, 2014: While the recent cease-fire in eastern Ukraine has moved the conflict primarily into the diplomatic and economic spheres and prevented significant military movements, reports of fighting and artillery fire continue to emerge from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Continued operations by Russian-backed forces in separatist-controlled regions, combined with movements of Russian forces into Crimea, indicate that Moscow is keeping the option of military force on the table amid the ongoing negotiations.
Nov. 7, 2014: Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council announced that a column of 32 tanks, 16 howitzer artillery systems and 30 trucks had moved from Russia into eastern Ukraine. The announcement follows warnings earlier in the week from Ukrainian government officials that Russia was sending more supplies to rebels in the country's east. Over the past two weeks, unconfirmed reports of supplies, weapons and equipment crossing from Russia into Luhansk and Donetsk provinces emerged on social media. These reports point to a movement of Grad multiple launch rocket systems, tanks, ammunition and anti-aircraft weapons into the region. The Ukrainian government has a mixed track record when reporting on the movements of Russian-backed personnel and supplies. However, reports from a diverse set of sources indicate a potential increase in the amount of Russian supplies and weapons flowing into eastern Ukraine, specifically to the areas where we have seen sustained and consistent fighting since the cease-fire formally took effect in early September.
Dec. 17, 2014: Since Dec. 9, when Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia separatists renewed efforts to enforce the cease-fire began, violence has declined notably along the contact line in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region. The withdrawal of some heavy equipment from the front line, as well as the general restraint exercised by both sides, has created a more stable environment for political negotiations to continue. Ukrainian forces and separatist forces backed by Russian troops maintain their positions along the contact line, but reciprocating fire between them has become the exception rather than the norm. The cease-fire likely will hold in order to facilitate political negotiations, but challenges remain for the resumption of the Minsk talks and de-escalation in Donbas.
Jan. 16, 2015: Ukrainian, Russian and separatist representatives are preparing for a potential renewal of the Minsk talks, with a presidential-level summit of Ukrainian, Russian, German and French leaders planned in Astana later this month. Meanwhile, fighting along the line of contact in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian security forces has returned to levels seen in the last quarter of 2014, reversing the gains made during the de-escalation in early December.
The Kremlin's strategy of using fighting in eastern Ukraine as a lever in the ongoing negotiations, as well as the nature of Russia's relationship with the separatists, has contributed to the recent uptick in violence. Nevertheless, faced with growing financial and political constraints, the Kremlin will not seek a significant escalation in eastern Ukraine in the long run, choosing instead to reduce violence along the contact line, although some low-level fighting could continue for some time.
Feb. 7, 2014: The United States may be moving toward providing lethal aid to Ukraine, a move it has thus far avoided in Kiev's fight against Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian troops could benefit greatly from such assistance from both the United States and other NATO countries, as long as the conflict remains contained within the Donbas region. But lethal aid will not solve Kiev's larger problems of declining troop morale and a lack of manpower, which will hurt its chances of successfully defending against Russia should the conflict escalate.
For its part, Washington is looking to use its assistance to Ukraine to bolster its position during negotiations with Moscow on the Ukraine crisis. As it pressures Russia, the United States will have to tread carefully if it wants to avoid provoking any further retaliation.
Feb. 10, 2014: Ukraine's internal troubles are pressuring the country's leaders to shift their stance amid ongoing talks with Russia and the West. On Feb. 9, the Ukrainian government announced it will call for parliament to meet on Feb. 23-27 to amend the country’s current budget so that it complies with International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands and completes negotiations for a new bailout package. The same day, in a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. President Barack Obama said U.S. and European leaders are working with the International Monetary Fund to give financial aid to Ukraine.
Ukraine's financial crisis is occurring alongside a host of other issues. The country faces the prospect of yet another natural gas cutoff, rising public dissatisfaction with results of military operations in Ukraine's east and fears of further Russian escalation. As Ukrainian, European and Russian leaders continue negotiating the future of Donbas in talks set for Feb. 11, the growing economic and political challenges in other areas of Ukraine will shape the dynamics of the talks by deepening Kiev's dependency on the West and pressuring the Ukrainian leadership to accept Western proposals for concessions.
Feb. 12, 2015: Following marathon talks in Minsk that lasted more than 17 hours, the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement that appears to align with the Kremlin's demands. The agreement reflects Ukraine's increasingly weak negotiating position as well as Germany's wish to avoid confrontation with Russia while trying to save the eurozone. Though the deal includes some notable provisions regarding a cease-fire and the withdrawal of arms, it also contains several points, most importantly constitutional changes, that will challenge Kiev and give the Kremlin control over key parts of the agreement.
The document calls for a cease-fire to begin Feb. 15, the withdrawal of weapons and the enactment of constitutional reforms in Ukraine. Though Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has denied that the agreement includes provisions for the creation of autonomous regions or the federalization of Ukraine, the document on the whole does fulfill several of the Kremlin's long-standing demands with regards to the status of Donbas.