DONETSK, Ukraine — Pro-Russian rebels convened a few hundred, overwhelmingly elderly supporters for a rally outside their headquarters on Thursday. Hundreds of miles away, a much-touted cease-fire had just been agreed minutes earlier, designed to bring an end to the conflict that has ravaged east Ukraine since last April.
The people had been gathered to commemorate the 97th birthday of the Donetsk-Krivoi Rog Republic, an anarchic proto-Soviet state that fought against German occupation at the end of World War I. Attendees waved the Donetsk People's Republic's black, blue, and red flag and danced to Soviet crooner karaoke, unperturbed by the constant thuds from artillery fire that still hit the city's outskirts.
"The world will be proud of us because we are strong!" a speaker said.
The cease-fire deal, struck in the Belarusian capital Minsk after 16 hours of talks between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France, is the result of a week of frantic last-ditch diplomacy aimed at preventing the 10-month Ukrainian conflict from escalating further still. Its 13-point plan provides steps for Ukraine to regain control of its porous eastern border with Russia and eventually reintegrate the parts of its eastern provinces controlled by Russian-backed separatist militias.
But there is a long way to go before the conflict is fully resolved. There remain significant disagreements over key elements of the deal as well as concerns over how, if at all, it can be implemented. Still, the agreement appears to be the best chance yet to bring peace to Ukraine since Russia annexed Crimea nearly a year ago, sparking the biggest global diplomatic crisis since the Cold War.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to put the blame for the crisis on the West, which he accuses of using Ukraine as a testing ground for eroding Russia's sphere of influence and planning his eventual overthrow. Nonetheless, he welcomed the chance for an off-ramp after weeks of spiralling tensions raised the prospect of further Western sanctions against Russia's spiralling economy and led U.S. President Barack Obama to mull arming Ukraine.
"It was not the best night in my life," Putin said Thursday. "But the morning, I think, is good, because we have managed to agree on the main things despite all the difficulties of the negotiations."
The talks were spurred by a surprise rebel offensive three weeks ago that saw Ukraine's troops suffer heavy casualties and significant losses of territory, while throwing Kiev's Western allies into disarray. It sparked calls inside the U.S. to supply lethal aid to Ukrainian forces, a move a top Putin ally said Wednesday was designed to "cause regime change" in Moscow and "dismember" Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande brokered the talks in an attempt to head off the swell of hawkish sentiment in Washington by returning to a similar deal that the sides had signed in Minsk in September but which never took hold.
"We now have a glimmer of hope," Merkel said, the AP reported. "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 agreement, signed by a "contact group" of representatives instead of the heads of state, envisions establishing a buffer zone between the warring sides, releasing prisoners, addressing the increasingly disastrous humanitarian situation, and taking steps to resolve the political conflict. It contains wins and losses for both sides. Ukrainian troops are required to withdraw their heavy artillery behind the current frontline, essentially legitimizing the territorial gains the rebels have made during the offensive.
The biggest question mark in the deal is the future of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, the names given to the country's two easternmost provinces by Russia-backed rebel groups that seized them last spring. The memorandum does not mention them by name and calls for the regions to hold local elections under Ukrainian law. (Rebels gleefully flouted a similar provision in the previous deal and held their own slipshod elections in November.) Under the deal, however Ukraine cannot regain control over its Russian border without granting amnesty to rebels, significant political freedoms — including the right to independent foreign policy — to local officials, and financial support to rebel-held areas, where most economic activity has ground to a standstill.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said after the talks that Ukraine had refused to give in to Russian calls to provide the rebel regions with full autonomy or adopt a federal structure, a move that Ukrainian officials say would essentially allow the Kremlin to manipulate Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern provinces to prevent Kiev's drive towards the European Union.
"We didn't give into any ultimatums and made it clear that we are declaring the cease-fire without any preliminary conditions," Poroshenko said. He added that the sides had agreed that all foreign troops were to leave the country, and that Ukraine was to regain control of its eastern border with Russia by the end of the year.
Problems dating back to the first Minsk deal make it difficult, however, to envision how exactly this is to happen. Putin continues to deny Ukraine's and NATO's claims that the Russian regular army is providing the rebels with troops, logistics, and supplies. As if to underscore the point, Russia's foreign ministry called on Thursday for Western governments to stop their citizens from volunteering to fight alongside the Ukrainian army and called the accusations of Russian troops inside Ukraine "unfounded."
A mountain of circumstantial evidence — ranging from sightings of heavy equipment made only in Russia to casual encounters with regular Russian troops — makes those denials seem scarcely plausible. Shortly after the talks concluded, a Kiev military spokesman said that 50 tanks, 40 missile systems and 40 armored vehicles had crossed the border from Russia overnight while the leaders were locked in deliberation. In recent days, reporters for BuzzFeed News saw columns of dozens of sophisticated tanks and weapons systems driving towards the strategically key city of Debaltseve, which links the two rebel republics by rail.
The town's status remains unclear after the talks, with the more than 48 hours until the ceasefire is due to come into effect giving both sides more than enough time to jockey for position. After a weeks-long siege, rebels claim to have surrounded the 8,000 Ukrainian soldiers stationed in the area. Poroshenko, who concluded the first ceasefire after the Russian army massacred Ukrainian troops in similar circumstances at Ilovaisk in August, claims that Ukraine still controls the road out.
Perhaps the only unconditionally good news for Poroshenko came from elsewhere on Thursday, when International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde said that Ukraine had reached a deal with Western creditors to increase bailout money to $40 billion to prevent financial meltdown. European and U.S. leaders had previously said any financial support was dependent on Kiev making progress on tackling its endemic corruption and sclerotic bureaucracy, a reform agenda that most Ukrainians support but which has rarely left the realm of rhetoric since the conflict intensified last summer.
Leaders offered differing explanations for why the marathon negotiations — during which Belarus' president personally served the participants buckets' worth of coffee while one journalist was hospitalized from exhaustion — had gone on so long. Poroshenko stormed out of the negotiations several times, including once under an hour after they started, and told AFP that Putin's conditions were "unacceptable." Putin said the fault lay with Poroshenko for refusing to deal directly with separatist leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, who came to Minsk to sign the memorandum and were seen taking instructions from top Putin aide Vladislav Surkov.
Though Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky issued statements of support after eventually signing the statement, Andrei Purgin, the top rebel official still in Donetsk, said they were "hardly" happy with the outcome.
"The Minsk agreement doesn't exist yet. The Minsk agreement is a piece of paper with some text on it," Purgin told a group of journalists on Thursday afternoon. "Even to fulfill the first few elementary points, Ukraine will have to change and become a safe place," Purgin, who is chairman of the Donetsk People's Republic's parliament, said.
As if to demonstrate his wartime mentality, Purgin's office was decorated with three photographs featuring the mouths of great white sharks, two photographs of nuclear mushroom clouds, a platinum-coated statue of a shark, and a portrait of Putin placed above a replica of the Soviet flag that the Red Army flew from the Reichstag when it captured Berlin at the end of World War II.
"As we start we reaching the points in the memorandum that we don't like, by then we'll be holding negotiations with a different country... where Poroshenko is sitting in prison and Turchynov and Yatsenyuk have been shot," Purgin continued, referring to Ukraine's security council chief and prime minister.
"The country that's on the other side of us right now – Ukraine – is a pro-fascist country which has basically forgotten about all conventions and rights."
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
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