Saturday 21 April 2018

Ukraine declares 'Easter truce' as radicals hold firm

A pro-Russian protester wearing a balaclava and holding a baseball bat sits next to piles of bricks and tyres outside a regional government building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine
A pro-Russian protester wearing a balaclava and holding a baseball bat sits next to piles of bricks and tyres outside a regional government building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine
Pro-Russian protesters watch a soccer match being played in front of a barricade outside a regional government building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine

David Blair in Donetsk

THE CONFRONTATION between Ukraine's new government and pro-Russian separatists reached stalemate yesterday when the authorities suspended their "anti-terrorist" operation and radicals stayed inside government buildings.

In the eastern city of Donetsk – the seat of power of a self-proclaimed "People's Republic" – a group of masked men gathered outside city hall, which they have occupied since last Wednesday.

Nearby, the regional administration building remained the headquarters of the so-called republic, protected by a ring of barricades.

So far, the agreement reached in talks in Geneva last Thursday to vacate all public buildings has made no difference on the ground. Nor has the attempt by the government in Kiev to re-impose its control over Donetsk by force.

As a Russian Orthodox priest gave public blessings for the religious holiday at the Donetsk government headquarters, officials in Kiev promised an "Easter truce" to give time for a peaceful settlement to emerge.

A military offensive against the separatists turned into a shambles earlier last week when hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers chose to surrender their weapons – and even their armoured vehicles – rather than open fire on civilians.

Andriy Deshchytsia, the Ukrainian foreign minister, said this operation was officially suspended.

"The anti-terrorist operation was put on hold for the Easter time and we will be not using force against them at this moment," he said. His words appeared to reflect the reality that Ukraine's post-revolutionary government lacks the ability to restore control over Donetsk by force.

However, Mr Deshchytsia told the BBC that the offensive would happen if the separatists stayed inside the official buildings that they had seized in 10 towns and cities.

These pro-Russian radicals say they will relinquish their gains only if the Kiev revolutionaries first leave their camp in Independence Square in the heart of the capital.

But the foreign minister said the protesters had permission from the city council and their presence in the square was "not illegal".

With the stand-off between Kiev and separatists deadlocked and the Geneva agreement making no difference, America wants Russia to guarantee the implementation of the deal.

The Western powers believe that Russian intelligence officers and special forces have organised the occupations in Donetsk and they could be reversed if the Kremlin so decided.

Susan Rice, the US national security adviser, gave warning of new sanctions on "very significant sectors of the Russian economy" if Moscow failed to ensure that its allies left government buildings.

However, Russia denied that it had any special responsibility to implement the Geneva terms.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, said there was no reason why relations between Russia and the West could not improve, but that it was up to the West to make that happen. He did not name any specific measures that the West should take. But his spokesman indicated that a lack of respect was a major factor, saying the West was treating Russia like a "guilty schoolboy".

In a sign of the difficulty of reaching a compromise on the position of Crimea, which the West considers part of Ukraine, Mr Putin said he would award medals to Russians who served during its seizure.

The leaders of the "Donetsk People's Republic" say they will hold a referendum on the status of the region by May 11.

That could allow the province of 4.5 million people, serving as Ukraine's coal-rich industrial heartland, to follow Crimea and unite with Russia.

But a new opinion poll suggested that pro-Russian separatism remains a minority cause everywhere in Ukraine, including Donetsk.

In eight regions of the east and south, 69.7 per cent said they were against joining Russia, with only 15.4 per cent in favour.

In the Donetsk region alone, 52.4 per cent oppose unity with Russia, with 27.5 per cent in favour.

© Telegraph

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