Ukraine’s armed forces and Moscow-backed rebels observed a “Day of Silence” in eastern Ukraine in an effort to bolster a fragile ceasefire that has managed to limit, if not end, bloody fighting in the region that has already cost around 2,400 lives.
Following the orders of Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, government troops stopped combat operations in rebel-held areas yesterday, and although some sporadic fighting was reported, for the most part, the silence held.
Talks involving a so-called “contact group” are due to be held in the Belarusian capital of Minsk later this week about renewing the ceasefire agreement struck on 5 September between the government and the rebels, under the auspices of Russia and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The truce has been repeatedly violated, with Kiev claiming 192 servicemen have been killed since it began, but it has provided a measure of stability, and it is hoped could lay the foundations for a general peace agreement.
Sergie Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said: “In the coming days, a meeting of the contact group is planned, in which will be discussed a plan prepared by military specialists of practical measures … with the aim of a final ceasefire.”
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But disagreements on when the talks should be held have already cast a shadow over them. Kiev wants to hold them early this week, while the rebels said they preferred Friday. Belarusian authorities said yesterday that so far neither party has confirmed they will attend.
The geo-political landscape has also changed since September owing to elections last month in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics that indicated the two regions wanted independence.
Mr Lavrov, however, made no mention of independence yesterday while talking to the press, which suggested Russia still favours maintaining Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
The minister described Mr Poroshenko as “Russia’s main partner in Kiev,” and called for constitutional reform in Ukraine that would recognise the country’s “multi-ethnic society” and grant certain freedoms to the rebellious regions.
Kiev has accused Russia of instigating the violence in eastern Ukraine in order to destabilise the country and the government – an accusation Moscow has rejected on numerous occasions.
But as an indication of a slight warming in relations between the two warring sides Moscow resumed gas supplies to Ukraine following protracted talks mediated by the European Union.
Russia turned off the supply on 16 June owing to Ukraine’s failure to pay its £3.3 billion gas bill. Under a new agreement Kiev will pay off most of the bill in two instalments in return for the resumption of supplies just as snow and freezing temperatures have started to grip eastern Europe.
The onset of winter has heaped more woe on the populations living in the war-torn areas. They have to contend with a broken down civilian infrastructure and a shattered economy, while the payment of state employee wages and pensions has ground to a halt.
In one case Vasiliy Lazoryshynets, Ukraine’s deputy health minister, appealed to the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders to “take care of the population” of the Slavyanoserbska Mental Hospital in the rebel-controlled Luhansk area where 350 patients have been left without medicine, running water, electricity and only a little food. A Ukrainian television network said 22 patients died last month, and that only one nurse remains at their post.
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