The ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels in the country’s east has all but collapsed as the separatists continue to launch attacks on the crucial Donetsk airport, according to reports.
The Russian-backed separatists are reportedly firing artillery at the airport grounds that are controlled by Ukrainian government troops. Five government soldiers and some rebels died in the fighting, according to Ukraine’s Defense Council, and there were additional reports of civilian casualties on Wednesday.
Ongoing clashes in Donetsk, where the separatists say they have established an independent “People’s Republic,” violate the ceasefire agreement reached last month in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Both sides agreed to put down arms and release prisoners.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said this week that the rebel offensive could derail the ceasefire.
“The lack of steady progress in fulfilling the Minsk agreements, as well as the continuing shelling by rebels, threatens the peace plan,” he said.
Donald Jensen, resident fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Transatlantic Relations, said in an interview that the Russian-backed rebels in some ways never intended to comply with the ceasefire. Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin might want to maintain a frozen conflict and not push for more territory in Ukraine.
“The Russians repeatedly have not obeyed the provisions of the ceasefire,” Jensen said. “That does not mean the Russians will go further.”
Poroshenko pressed members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Tuesday to expand their efforts to monitor the agreement in eastern Ukraine. The OSCE will have 500 workers and two drones in Ukraine this month, but the Ukrainian leader said 1,500 people and 29 drones are required to help secure portions of the Russian border controlled by separatists.
However, Victoria Nuland, U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said on Wednesday in Ukraine that more OSCE monitors could only be deployed if the ceasefire is fully implemented.
“The OSCE mission has a civilian monitoring mission, it is not a military mission,” she told the Kyiv Post. “It has been able to work in those parts of the special status zone where there is peace but where they are most needed, where the shooting is still continuing, they are not able to work, which is why we joined President Poroshenko in insisting that the cease fire will be honored in full.”
Nuland also announced that the United States would provide an additional $10 million worth of nonlethal equipment to Ukraine’s border guards, including body armor, SUVs, and thermal vision gear, as she met with the deputy chief of the state border guard service.
Poroshenko bluntly called for lethal military aid in a speech to the U.S. Congress last month when he said Ukraine “cannot win a war with blankets.” That request has not been met.
The United Nations said on Tuesday that 331 people have died since the September ceasefire was supposed to end hostilities. More than 3,660 people have died in eastern Ukraine since the pro-Russian separatists declared in April that they were breaking away from the country.
Civilian deaths reportedly spiked in late August when former and current Russian troops “on leave” poured into eastern Ukraine to aid the separatists, forcing Ukrainian troops to agree to the ceasefire despite their string of previous victories. Russia denies that it has provided the rebels with troops or weapons.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for “strict compliance” with the ceasefire agreement last week despite the Kremlin’s suspected involvement in the separatist attacks.
There are concerns that the rebels could soon mount an offensive on Mariupol, the port on the Sea of Azov that would serve as a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula that the Kremlin annexed earlier this year. Russian paratroopers and unmarked “green men” suspected of fighting on behalf of Moscow have previously been spotted near Mariupol.
Jensen said Putin seems to be leaning against backing an invasion of Mariupol or elsewhere in Ukraine. The authoritarian leader is constantly balancing the competing interests of those in his inner circle, including hardliners who want him to seize more territory and more pro-business advisers who favor less action.
“The less martial forces in the [Russian] elite are saying, ‘stop where you are,’ which Putin seems to have agreed with for now,” he said. “Putin would normally balance these [forces], and he seems to be doing that.”
The separatists could also be seeking to gain more territory in order to disrupt voting for Ukraine’s parliamentary elections on Oct. 26.