KIEV (AFP) – Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels said Thursday they had agreed to halt fire on December 9 under the terms of a truce aimed at ending one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts in decades.
The unexpected announcement provides the latest glimmer of hope that fighting across the eastern rustbelt of the ex-Soviet nation was nearing to a close after eight months that saw 4,300 people killed and shattered Moscow’s ties with the West.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker underscored the Cold War-era chill now enveloping East-West relations by calling Russia a “strategic problem” for the 28-nation EU bloc.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Washington and Brussels of trying to force the “collapse and dismemberment” of his country through sanctions meant to punish the Kremlin’s alleged support for the Ukrainian rebel cause.
Putin denies any link to the fighters and calls the economic restrictions a US-led pretext for toppling his increasingly nationalist regime.
The truce date disclosed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and two top separatist leaders was apparently agreed – but never disclosed – with the help of Russian and European envoys in the Belarussian capital Minsk on September 5.
Poroshenko said Kiev had prepared “measures that should ensure the implementation of the Minsk Agreement concerning a Day of Silence that is due to begin on December 9”.
A source in Poroshenko’s office said the president’s statement meant Ukraine would begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the eastern frontline on December 10 – as long as the separatists also observed the truce.
The parliament speaker of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic confirmed the latest ceasefire was part of the Minsk deal.
“The (Minsk) group, which included our and Ukrainian military officials, as well as OSCE and Russian mediators, agreed to halt fire on December 9,” Andrei Purgin told Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency.
But Purgin refused to say whether he thought this agreement would hold.
Several truce deals announced in the course of the war were broken within days by both rebels and Ukrainian soldiers who refused to listen to their political leaders.
The head of the neighbouring self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic said a ceasefire that would begin in mid-December was discussed at the Minsk negotiations.
But he also stressed that no written agreement on a specific date was ever reached.
“There was a verbal agreement (about a ceasefire) for around that date,” Igor Plotnitsky told RIA Novosti. “But we do not have written confirmation of this yet.”
Swiss president and Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chairman Didier Burkhalter also cautioned that “there are a number of different points that are not clear for the time being”.
But Moscow said Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov “especially drew attention to the need to consistently carry out the Minsk pact and to secure a stable ceasefire” during talks in the Swiss city of Basel with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
The September 5 agreement was meant to establish a 30-kilometre buffer zone between the fighters and grant limited self-rule to the separatists.
Yet hostilities only intensified after the two rebel regions held their own leadership polls on November 2 that were denounced by both Kiev and the West.
The war was sparked by the February ouster of an unpopular Russian-backed president who refused to sign a landmark pact with the European Union that would have broken Kiev’s long-standing dependence on Moscow.
The regime change appeared to catch Putin off guard.
Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea was soon overrun by pro-Russian soldiers in green unmarked uniforms and eventually annexed by Moscow.