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For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?
The Minsk agreements of both September and February are widely discussed in the media as agreements on the creation of a ceasefire, but the publicly available text of both agreements goes beyond this and establish a rough outline for a more-permanent peace. The deals established a demarcation line for the temporary ceasefire, but always made two things clear: 1) the Donbass is still Ukraine and 2) a permanent political reconciliation is the end goal.
Part of that reconciliation, spelled out in both Minsk I and Minsk II, is that the separatist territories would be granted special semi-autonomous status, they would hold local elections according to Ukrainian law, and all illegal and foreign military groups would stand down and/or withdraw.
One of the many problems with the Minsk agreements: the order of operations was never clear. Now the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, has amended the law granting “special status” to the Donbass to ensure that local elections and the withdrawal of Russian forces happens first.
Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, tweeted these sentiments after the bill was passed:
Russia and the Russian-backed separatists see things very differently.
There is another problem — the continued fighting on several fronts across eastern Ukraine has led the Ukrainian President to declare the ceasefire as broken and Ukraine’s Prime Minister to say that Ukraine’s military should be on high alert:
Now the Russian-backed separatists have advanced north of a river crossing north of Lugansk and there are reports that the Ukrainian government are preparing to retake the crossing.
In other words, while the relatively-low level of violence has allowed the political process to advance, the Ukrainian parliament is unwilling to give the Russian-backed separatists large concessions without significant progress. Because of this, the serious fault lines between the two sides along several of these issues have been exposed.
And it’s only a matter of time before there is a new earthquake in eastern Ukraine.
— James Miller
Earlier this afternoon we reported that the office of the governor of the Lugansk region had announced that Russian-backed fighters had advanced across the Seversky Donets river near Stanitsa Luganskaya and were now setting up a defensive position on the northern bank.
Informator.lg.ua now reports citing an unnamed source, that Russian-backed fighters have also crossed a rail bridge in the same area. According to the source, several Ukrainian soldiers were dispatched to demand that they peacefully returned to their positions on the other side of the river (the river forms the natural shape of the demarcation line established in the Minsk agreement in this area).
The source told Informator that the Ukrainian troops do not want to violate the ceasefire, but fear a provocation by the separatists.
The Interpreter translates:
In the event that the demand is not fulfilled, the troops of the 17th tank brigade are planning to restore control over said territory by force.
Informator notes that Dmytro Tymchuk, a Ukrainian military analyst and founder of Information Resistance, had claimed on March 13 that a large enemy force had been redeployed towards Stanitsa Luganskaya, numbering no less than 600 fighters and around 30 units of armour.
— Pierre Vaux
Interfax-Ukraine reports that the Verkhovna Rada has passed the bill on the special self-governing status for some areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. The bill was passed with supporting votes from 296 deputies.
We are not yet certain which settlements are to be granted ‘special status.’ This is an issue which has been problematic since the signing of the first Minsk agreement in September last year.
The decision taken by the Rada today refers to the affected area as occupying the territory between the Russian border, the Azov sea and the demarcation line “established in the Minsk memorandum of September 19, 2014.”
Ukrainska Pravda reports that the bill was passed with the important amendment that the self-governing status would only be granted after the holding of legitimate elections under Ukrainian law in the occupied territories.
The bill stipulates that, for the holding of such elections, there must be freedom for opposition parties to campaign and equal access to media. To that end, Ukrainian broadcast and print media must be allowed distribution in the occupied regions.
The Rada also voted on a motion to recognise parts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions as “occupied territory” until the withdrawal of “illegal armed groups, their military hardware, fighters and mercenaries from Ukrainian territory and the re-establishment of Ukrainian control over the state border.”
Ukrainska Pravda notes that Oleh Lyashko and Oleh Beryozyuk, the leader of Samopomich, had amended the text to refer to the withdrawal of the Russian army before it was put to a vote.
The motion passed with 286 deputies voting in favour.
Novosti Donbassa reports that the press office of the governor of the Lugansk region, Hennadiy Moskal, has announced that Russian-backed fighters have crossed the Seversky Donets river near Stanitsa Luganskaya to establish a defensive position on the northern bank. This is a significant move and suggests an attempt at an advance beyond the natural front line which has been created by this section of the river.
The bridge is only remaining link across the river near Stanitsa Luganskaya as the others have been blown. This bridge itself was severely damaged by a blast on January 21 this year, and remains passable only at risk by car or foot.
Moskal’s office claimed that the fighters, militants from the self-declared ‘Lugansk People’s Republic’ (LNR), had begun constructing a defensive position.
To counter this, Ukrainian troops had moved forward to build their own defences north of the crossing. The governor’s office reported that there had been no fighting between the two sides so far, and that the distance between the two positions was around 300 metres.
This would be the first separatist position north of the Seversky Donets since Ukrainian forces retook settlements to the north last summer.
On January 27, Russian-backed fighters were repelled while attempting to cross the river near Stanitsa Luganskaya on a pontoon bridge.
— Pierre Vaux
The Kyiv Post reports:
The accident took place at around 3 p.m. in the center of the city of 95,000 residents. The armored vehicle lost control on the road and hit the little girl, her aunt and her baby cousin. The aunt received heavy injuries and was taken to a local hospital, but the baby was not injured, according to the Ukrainian authorities.
Ukrainian authorities say that the soldiers driving the armored vehicle were drinking, and they have been arrested and are facing charges. If the solders are found guilty then their commanders will also be “held responsible.”
The Kyiv Post also adds that after the accident there were protests, and then riots.
Meanwhile, videos of unrest in Kostyantynivka have become viral in social networks. Most of them showed people shouting in the streets and fires burning. The local office of the interior ministry said protesters burned tires in the streets.
Videos posted yesterday showed angry crowds lashing out at the Ukrainian military.
Later last night, police and military vehicles were set on fire by rioters in the town. According to the news agency RBC, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry claims that the riots were being led by “visiting separatists.”
Ilya Kiv, deputy head of the Donetsk regional branch of the Interior Ministry, claimed on Ukraine’s TSN television channel, that the individual behind the unrest had been identified and was an active support of the separatists. Kiv said that the individual concerned had left the town after Ukrainian forces retook it on July 8 last year, but had suddenly returned after the accident to capitalist on it and organize protests.
RBC notes that Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to the interior minister, had earlier suggested that the protests and anti-military actions in Konstantinov were organized by “separatists’ accomplices,” while speaking to the 112 television channel. Herashchenko spoke, however, about a group of instigators rather than an individual.
We have not seen any hard evidence that suggests that separatists organized the riots, and the initial protests appeared spontaneous. On one hand, the separatists have bragged about their ability to cause trouble in cities that they no longer control, and the propagandists in Russia have jumped on this incident to embarrass and discredit the Ukrainian military and government. On the other, there is a lot of latent anger in eastern Ukraine, and the Interior Ministry’s comments may look insensitive to those who already do not trust the Ukrainian government.
It’s clear from Peter Leonard’s reporting that the situation in the city is extremely tense today.
Ukrainska Pravda reports that Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council (NSDC), has told reporters at a briefing that three Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and another five wounded over the last 24 hours.
Earlier, Novosti Donbassa reported that the ATO press centre had claimed that Russian-backed fighters had shelled the Ukrainian-held town of Avdeyevka with tanks, mortars and artillery.
Anatoly Stelmakh, spokesman for the press centre, told journalists that, in a notable violation of the requirement under the Minsk agreement to withdraw heavy artillery, Russian-backed fighters had shelled the town three times with 122 mm mortars.
In the same area, north of Donetsk, Russian-backed fighters had, he said, fired on the villages of Peski and Opytnoye with small arms and automatic grenade launchers.
This video, uploaded onto a pro-separatist YouTube channel on March 16, purportedly showed separatist fighters in the trenches outside Peski, using mortars and an automatic grenade launcher:
Meanwhile, to the south, the military headquarters in Mariupol reported that that had been attacks on Ukrainian positions east of the port city.
At 00:50 (22:50 GMT), there was a small arms attack on Ukrainian positions near the village of Chermalyk, north-east of Mariupol, and between 8:00 and 8:40, Russian-backed fighters attacked Ukrainian positions in Shirokino with small arms.
The headquarters noted that there had been four attacks the previous day and 11 drone flights detected in the area, the most recent of which was at 4:00 over Pavlopol.
— Pierre Vaux
Russia’s Interfax news agency reports that representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk ‘People’s Republics’ (DNR and LNR) have announced that any changes, made without their agreement, to the ‘special status’ bill on self-government in the conflict zone, would render it invalid and jeopardise the peace process.
DNR representative Denis Pushilin told Interfax that the text of the special status law, passed by the Verkovna Rada in September 2014, was broadly in line with the negotiating positions of the DNR and LNR, and had been agreed upon by the representatives of the self-proclaimed republics during the Minsk negotiations.
Pushilin said that no-one on his side had agreed to the amendments introduced by President Poroshenko in the draft bill he announced on March 14 and submitted to the Rada yesterday. The are currently being discussed by members of the governing coalition.
The amendments were, he said (translated by The Interpreter):
“They are, from our point of view, legally meaningless and politically negligible, and they directly violate the spirit and letter of the Minsk agreements: like the protocol from September 5 and the package of measures from February 12.”
Pushilin claimed that Poroshenko’s amendment of the bill had “practically suspended the Minsk process.”
“He does not respect the people of the Donbass, he does not want peace, and so, he will get a war.”
— Pierre Vaux
Interfax-Ukraine reports that the vice-speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, Oksana Syroid, has announced that today’s Rada session on the ‘special status’ bill on self-governance for occupied areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, a critical component of the Minsk II agreement, has been rescheduled to 16:00 (14:00 GMT) today.
Earlier today, UNIAN reported that Ihor Kononenko, deputy leader of the Bloc Petro Poroshenko party, had told journalists that the governing coalition, made up of his own party, the Popular Front, Batkivshchyna, Samopomich and Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party, had not been able to reach an agreement on the bill.
The Interpreter translates:
“There’s disagreement between the positions of the coalition on the issue of the special status for the conflict zones. At the moment, the Radical Party, Samopomich and Batkivshchyna are not prepared to support this bill, drafted by the president. Therefore an adjournment has been announced and the coalition council is now gathering. We will try to find common ground,” said the deputy.
Responding to a request for clarification on whether there were enough votes for the proposition without those parties, Kononenko expressed his opinion that there were enough votes, but that there needs to be a unified coalition on such an issue.
Kononenko told reporters that the secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, Oleksandr Turchynov, was in consultations with Lyashko to try and find a compromise. According to the MP, Lyashko considers the special status law to be the “legalisation of the Russian occupation.”
Later this morning, Ukrainska Pravda reported that, according to their sources, the leaders of the coalition factions, together with Turchynov and the speaker of the Rada, Volodymyr Groysman, would go to the Presidential Administration to consult with the president on the bill.
Ukrainska Pravda reported that there were several key stumbling blocks in the bill, most notably the amendment introduced by the president, that proposed that the status of self-governance only be introduced after the holding of legitimate elections to the Ukrainian legislature.
This actually implies the re-establishment of Ukrainian control over these territories, claim Bloc Petro Poroshenko and the Popular Front.
Furthermore, the question that has been raised since the first Minsk agreement in September last year is still here: which settlements are to be included?
Ukrainska Pravda reported that there were still disagreements on the demarcation line used in the bill, and that the current draft applied the special status to a 50-50 split of government and separatist-held settlements. This could mean loosening control over towns and cities that the Ukrainians fought hard to regain control of last year, such as Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and Mariupol.
— Pierre Vaux