In exchange for a ceasefire and pullback of heavy weapons, Ukraine would trade broad autonomy in the east in a new agreement worked out in Minsk Thursday. Kiev would get back control of its Russian border by the end of 2015 under a the peace deal worked out in all-night negotiations between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, according to the AP.
The deal was full of issues that could derail its implementation, however.
When they announced the plan, Russia and Ukraine differed over what exactly they had agreed to in the talks, including the status of Debaltseve, a key town now under rebel siege. Putin said the rebels consider the Ukrainian forces there surrounded and expect them to surrender, while Ukraine says its troops have not been blocked.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said there was no agreement on full autonomy or federalization for eastern Ukraine, a longtime demand of Russia, which wants that to maintain its leverage over Ukraine and prevent its neighbor from ever joining NATO.
The deal also requires the Ukrainian parliament to give wide powers to the eastern regions as a condition for restoring Ukraine’s full control over its border with Russia — a provision certain to trigger heated debate in Kiev.
Uncertainty remained even on the cease-fire, as Putin admitted he and Poroshenko disagreed on the situation at the government-held town of Debaltseve, Debaltseve is a key transport hub between the rebels’ two main cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
“We now have a glimmer of hope,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who brokered the talks in the Belarusian capital of Minsk together with French President Francois Hollande. “But the concrete steps, of course, have to be taken. And we will still face major obstacles. But, on balance, I can say what we have achieved gives significantly more hope than if we had achieved nothing.”
The new deal envisions a 50- to 140-kilometer (31- to 87-mile) wide buffer zone as both parties pull back heavy artillery and rocket systems from the front line, depending on their caliber.
The withdrawal should begin no later than the second day after the cease-fire becomes effective and should be completed within two weeks.
The rebel regions, which held their own elections last fall that Ukraine and the West declared a sham, are obliged to hold a new local vote under the Ukrainian law.
In a key concession to Russia, the deal says the restoration of Ukrainian control over its eastern border with Russia could be completed only by the end of 2015 and on the condition that Ukraine conducts constitutional reform granting wide powers to the eastern regions, including the right to form their own police and to trade freely with Russia.
“It was not the best night in my life. But the morning, I think, is good, because we have managed to agree on the main things despite all the difficulties of the negotiations,” Putin told reporters.
Hollande said he and Merkel are committed to helping verify the cease-fire in Ukraine, hailing the deal as a “relief to Europe.”
In Kiev, Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said despite the peace talks, Russia sent 50 tanks and a dozen heavy weapons overnight into Ukraine.
“We will see whether there will be a cease-fire or not,” Tatyana Griedzheva said in Donetsk. “You have seen it with your own eyes, the kind of cease-fire that we have already had.”
Poroshenko stressed that the agreement contains “a clear commitment to withdraw all foreign troops, all mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine,” a reference to the Russian soldiers and weapons that Ukraine and the West say Russia has sent into eastern Ukraine to back the rebels.
Moscow has denied the accusations, saying any Russia fighters were volunteers, but the sheer number of sophisticated heavy weapons in the rebels’ possession belies the denial.
Merkel said Putin had exerted pressure on the separatists to get them to agree to the cease-fire.
In Brussels, European Union President Donald Tusk said the test of the Minsk agreement will be whether the weekend cease-fire holds in eastern Ukraine.
The French-German diplomatic offensive came as President Barack Obama considered sending U.S. lethal weapons to Ukraine, a move that European nations feared would only widen the hostilities.
The move could potentially scuttle the agreement.
Obama met German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday but announced no decision on weapons, despite several senior officials in his administration coming out last week in favor of sending arms.
European countries have opposed sending arms to Kiev, arguing that would escalate the war, according to Al Jazeera.
The Russian leader said the peace deal also determines a division line from which heavy weapons will be pulled back. The line of division and other key provisions were in a document endorsed by rebel chiefs and the representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. That agreement was endorsed by the four European leaders, who issued a separate declaration.
“We were presented with various unacceptable conditions of withdrawal and surrender,” Poroshenko said. “We did not agree to any ultimatums and stated firmly that the cease-fire that is announced is unconditional.”
Rebel leaders lauded the agreement and said they’re willing to give Kiev another chance.