Ukraine reports another night of heavy fighting. The shelling of a major frontier-crossing checkpoint west of Donetsk is a worrying escalation.
Yesterday’s live coverage of the Ukraine conflict can be found here.
For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.
For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: How We Know Russia Shot Down MH17.
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Ambassador Sajdik, as you highlighted in your presentation, there is no time to lose. A full ceasefire, the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, complete access for the OSCE SMM all the way to Ukraine’s international border, free and fair local elections in the Donbas, and the reinstatement of Ukraine’s control over its international border are all indispensable elements of Minsk implementation. Sanctions must remain in place until Russia fulfills the commitments it made when it signed the Minsk Agreements.
Likewise, local elections in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk under Ukrainian law and in line with OSCE standards must be monitored by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), as spelled out in the Minsk Package of Measures. We look to you, Ambassador Sajdik, to support efforts to reach an agreement on election modalities in the Trilateral Contact Group and the political working group. Ukraine has engaged in these discussions constructively and in good faith, and we are still waiting for Russia and the separatists to engage similarly.
This is a harder emphasis than was indicated on January 22, Secretary of State John Kerry who said the US may consider lifting sanctions if the Minsk agreement was implemented, Bloomberg reported:
“With effort and with bone fide, legitimate intent to solve the problem on both sides, it’s possible in these next months to find those Minsk agreements implemented,” he told an audience in Davos, Switzerland. If this happens, it would “get to the place where sanctions can be appropriately — because of the implementation — be removed,” he said.
As the SMM grows, it must remain focused not only on security issues, but also on the human dimension to the conflict. In advance of elections, it will be important for us to understand the situation regarding human rights and fundamental freedoms in the special status area. Ambassador Apakan, the recent SMM report on access to justice highlighted the alarming use of arbitrary detention in separatist-controlled areas. This could have a chilling effect on free speech, especially in the context of local elections. The SMM has also reported on interference by armed separatists in politically-sensitive legal cases, which augurs poorly for the role of the courts in independently adjudicating election-related irregularities. An assessment of freedom of expression in the conflict zone would be timely and important.
Ambassador Apakan, your mission has repeatedly faced unacceptable restrictions on its movement, the vast majority of which were imposed by the separatists. As your report notes, in early January alone, combined Russian-separatist forces imposed 91 percent of those restrictions. Combined Russian-separatist forces have also increased the number of hostile acts against the SMM in a concerted effort to intimidate monitors. Since your last report to the Permanent Council, monitors have come under small arms fire twice, so-called “LPR” forces threatened SMM monitors five times, and so-called “DPR” militants forced monitors to the ground at gunpoint.
These acts were neither accidents nor unfortunate coincidences. Ambassador Apakan, your report notes that restrictions and hostilities appear to be carried out deliberately to prevent the SMM from fulfilling the very tasks it has been charged with, in particular, verifying the removal of heavy weapons and monitoring the situation near the border with Russia.
She also countered Lavrov’s false claim that Russia “had not violated” the Budapest Memorandum, claiming that its only requirement was not to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, after Ukraine turned over all its nuclear armaments to Russia.
But in fact, the Budapest agreement requires recognition of Ukraine’s sovereignty (along with that of Belarus and Kazakhstan) and a pledge not to violate its territorial integrity — which has been violated. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also violates UN General Assembly resolution in recognition of Ukraine’s integrity overwhelmingly passed after the annexation of Ukraine, and contradicts the Helsinki Final Act about the recognition of post-World War II borders.
For their part, Ambassadors Apakan and Sajdik spoke at the OSCE today, but their published statement did not single out any side in the conflict as responsible for violating the ceasefire or blocking monitors.
Today the SMM announced two new forward operating bases on government controlled territory near the line of contact. There needs to be much more done by Russia and the separatists it backs to deliver full, safe, unhindered SMM access in territory not currently under government control. The recent surge in threats to and interference with the SMM’s personnel and operations by Russia-backed separatists, including hostile acts against monitors, makes it clear that OSCE participating States must reaffirm the Mission’s mandate to operate freely throughout Ukraine, including attaining access to the entirety of Ukraine’s international border.
Yesterday there was a TCG meeting in Minsk, as you know, and yet this morning we have the report of new attacks overnight, as Minister Klimkin said. The regrettable unpredictability of resurgent fighting is a good reminder of the fact that no chairmanship can know at the outset what lies in the year ahead, (as the Swiss will surely tell you.) This of course was also true that the last time Germany took up the chair 25 years ago. That time, in 1991, in the second week of its chairmanship there was a confrontation at a TV tower in Vilnius, the 25th anniversary of which was yesterday, when Lithuanians stood up for their independence in the face of Soviet tanks, and 14 people’s lives were lost.
Minister Steinmeier, you stated your intention to renew dialogue while not shying away from calling out breaches of OSCE principles and international law. The United States is fully committed to continuing dialogue within this Organization toward resolving the crisis caused by Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and addressing other threats to security and shared challenges in the OSCE region. It is imperative our dialogue be grounded in and reaffirm participating States’ commitment to the concept of comprehensive and cooperative security, and to achieving it through the full implementation of all OSCE commitments across the three dimensions. And we must acknowledge that we need not only dialogue but also action to rebuild trust.
As we have reported, heavy fighting has continued along the contact line in recent days in blatant violation of the ceasefire. As SMM reported January 27, they have discovered craters made by mortars from weapons that should have been withdrawn under the Minsk agreement:
In the government-controlled part of Zaitseve (50km north-east of Donetsk), the SMM followed up on reports about shelling in the evening of 26 January*. The SMM analysed three craters located in the western part of the village close to the contact line. On a residential street, it saw in one crater remnants of a 82mm mortar round assessed as having been fired from the south. About 100m north-east of the first crater, the SMM saw another crater, in which it observed remnants of a 82mm mortar round assessed as having been fired from the south-east. The SMM found in a third crater remnants of a 120mm mortar round, about 1.5km north-west from the first crater, assessed as having been fired from the east.
The SMM spoke to several residents in the “DPR”-controlled part of Zaitseve*, who said that shelling had taken place on 26 January at 18:30hrs and that the roof of a house located in Karbysheva Street 104 was damaged. The SMM saw a hole with a diameter of one meter on the northern side of the roof. Electrical lines within the house were also damaged. According to the residents, the area was affected by frequent shelling, mostly taking place between 18:30 and 21:00hrs, due to the proximity of the “DPR” checkpoint. The SMM observed a “DPR” checkpoint some 300m north-west from the damaged house, adjacent to school #15 .
As we have reported, there is concern that the POWs who were supposed to be returned may have been executed by the Russian-backed fighters, and the International Committee of the Red Cross is blocked from visiting most POWS held by the forces of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics.”
While the issue of returning control of the border to Ukraine is generally seen as to be sequenced after the Constitutional amendments, Ukrainian leaders have stressed that the basic conditions of the ceasefire and the return of POWs would have to be made. The Verkhovna Rada has postponed the vote on the changes to the Constitution meant to establish self-governance.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The Ukrainian military claims that Russian-backed fighters shelled a frontier-crossing checkpoint outside the Donetsk suburb of Marinka last night.
Each day, hundreds of civilians pass through the checkpoint, one of a small number of points at which people can enter and exit separatist-held territory. Just this morning, 235 cars were reported to be queuing up to pass through.
According to the ATO Press Centre, the checkpoint came under fire from automatic grenade launchers and infantry fighting vehicles (BMPs) at 21:10. Fortunately, no casualties were reported.
The chairman of the Marinka administration, Vladimir Moroz, reported that shells had also fallen near a home on Shevchenko street.
MP and military analyst Dmytro Tymchuk claimed that, under cover of fire from anti-aircraft artillery, snipers had fired on Ukrainian troops from a slag heap overlooking Marinka.
Aleksandr Kindsfater, military spokesman for #Sector M,’ which includes the south of the Donetsk region and the suburbs west of the separatist-held city, reported that there had been 11 attacks on Ukrainian positions in Marinka and nearby Krasnogorovka, three of them conducted with 82 mm mortars.
Ukrainian soldiers were, the military says, forced to return fire four times.
Colonel Andriy Lysenko, military spokesman for the Presidential Administration, claimed that 120 mm mortars had also been used:
Across the whole front, the military reported 71 attacks over 24 hours, with mortars, grenade launchers, machine guns and BMPs used.
To the north of Donetsk, attacks were reported on positions near Peski, Opytnoye, Avdeyevka and the Butovka mine.
Meanwhile the pro-separatist Donetsk News Agency (DAN) reported that Ukrainian forces had shelled northern areas of Donetsk with 82 and 120 mm mortars, as well as using BMPs, anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers.
According to DAN, fire was directed at Donetsk Airport and the Volvo Centre, a position southeast of Peski.
In the Gorlovka area, the ATO Press Centre reports that Ukrainian defensive positions in Zaytsevo were shelled with 82 mm mortars while ones in Novgorodskoye and Mayorsk were attacked with grenade launchers, heavy machine guns and BMPs.
According to Lysenko, Russian-backed fighters suffered heavy casualties after a skirmish in this area:
Russian-backed fighters In the south, Kindsfater reported, Ukrainian troops weer attacked and returned fire near Kominternovo, around 10 kilometres outside Mariupol.
Fighting was also reported in the Lugansk region.
The governor of the Lugansk region, Georgiy Tuka, reported that Ukrainian troops near the village of Krymskoye, on the southern banks of the Seversky Donets river, had been fired on with guided anti-tank missiles.
Colonel Lysenko announced at noon today that two Ukrainian soldiers had been wounded during combat in the Donbass: