The Guns of Donetsk Have Gone Quiet

4 MINS READDec 17, 2014 | 10:15 GMT
The Guns of Donetsk Have Gone Quiet
An armed supporter of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk mans a checkpoint in the city of Horlivka near Donetsk on Dec. 13.

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.

On Dec. 5, talk of a new attempt to enforce the Sept. 5 cease-fire, which had failed to achieve a complete cessation of hostilities despite ending major offensives, emerged at the Donetsk Airport. The airport had seen the most intense fighting since the cease-fire, but Ukrainian forces recently recaptured parts of the airport, raising separatists' fears of losing more ground. This localized cease-fire had little time to take shape before the Dec. 9 attempt to have a "day of silence" led to a more sustainable de-escalation.

Since Dec. 9, artillery fire — which had made up the bulk of continuing fire on the contact line — has decreased dramatically, and some information even appears to validate the separatists' claims that they have been moving heavier artillery pieces away from the line. Most notably, there have been only a few a reports of Grad missile barrages, which played a major part of the fighting in eastern Ukraine since the beginning of the July 4 Ukrainian offensive. Some artillery fire has continued, as has sporadic small-arms fire, especially near the Donetsk Airport and Debaltseve, a village on the crossing of the main highways in Donbas that extended Ukrainian positions continue to hold.

Russia Maintains Supply Flow to Ukrainian Separatists

Separatist Areas in Ukraine

Despite the drop in fire on the contact line, both sides maintain deployments to their most advanced positions. Ukrainian forces have continued rotations and are being supplied with new vehicles and arms on the front line. After the devastating effects of Russia's support for separatist counter-offensives, the Ukrainian military is still rebuilding its capabilities — a process that will take a considerable amount of time. On the separatist side, Russian forces remain inside Ukraine. Convoys of Russian equipment continue crossing into Ukraine frequently, although these probably are part of a rotation plan that allows Russia to sustain a presence in eastern Ukraine that both consolidates separatists' gains and keeps the military option available to Moscow. However, neither side is showing signs of renewing large-scale offensives. Ultimately, both sides are likely to maintain the cease-fire to allow time for continued political negotiations.

Plans for renewed talks in Minsk did not materialize last week because of delays from the separatists. However, a flurry of international activity has taken place since the renewal of the cease-fire on Dec. 9. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the crisis with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Dec. 14 in Rome. That same day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande talked with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on the phone regarding the status of the Minsk agreements and Ukraine's planned reforms. Poroshenko is also scheduled to meet with EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini on Dec. 16. These meetings signal that though the Minsk talks have not restarted formally, indirect negotiations could be taking place to set up the basis for continued talks between Ukrainian, Russian and separatist representatives in the near future.

Nevertheless, there are still obstacles to the resumption of talks in Minsk and for a de-escalation of hostilities in Donbas. On the tactical level, though the two sides have largely adhered to the cease-fire, personnel and a large portion of arms and equipment remain deployed in the region, especially in highly disputed areas such as the Donetsk Airport and Debaltseve. Moreover, on the diplomatic level, the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014, which the U.S. Congress passed on Dec. 13, authorizes U.S. President Barack Obama to provide up to $350 million worth of lethal and non-lethal weapons to Ukraine and to implement extra sanctions on the Russian arms export industry. This act has elicited a negative reaction from the Russian government. Though both sides support at least a temporary end to active fighting, the Russian-backed separatists' adherence to the cease-fire hinges on the level of support the West — and especially the United States — gives Ukraine. The cease-fire will also depend on Kiev's willingness to negotiate and provide concessions to the Kremlin, especially regarding Ukraine's status as a neutral state.

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