In Focus: Weapons Withdrawal in Ukraine

Truce

The truce brokered in Minsk to ease fighting along the frontlines was, in the early stages, generally observed according to France and Germany. There were a few localized bouts of fighting however, particularly surrounding Luhansk and Debaltseve. The latter area proved to be a great threat to the continuance of the ceasefire due to the 5,000 entrapped Ukrainian servicemen under siege in the “Debaltseve trap”.  The pro-Russian forces claimed that because the Ukrainian troops were not in Ukrainian-held territory they were not included in the Minsk terms. However, there has since been a sharp reduction in violent actions.

The OSCE recently arrived in Debaltseve to aid in enforcing the ceasefire. At the moment there are only sporadic and isolated cases of shelling. The two combatant factions in the region have, for the time being, agreed to meet with the terms for peace.

Weapons withdrawal is indicative of shared trust between the separatists and Kiev. Should incomplete weapons withdrawal become the norm it is likely to precipitate the resumption of full-scale combat operations.

 

Weapons Removal

The OSCE facilitated the removal of weapons by requesting withdrawal routes. Both sides have begun moving equipment following the cessation of major armed clashes. The OSCE recently released a report detailing the withdrawal of pro-Russian heavy weaponry in the Donetsk region.

A majority of this equipment appeared to be Grad Multiple Rocket Launch Systems (MLRS) accompanied by an assortment of other military type vehicles. The Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) accompanied four convoys of Grad MLRS and their attendant support vehicles along the withdrawal routes to their final destinations. The SMM stated that the sites would still be observed on a daily basis even though Donetsk People’s Republic commanders told them that the trucks were in their final location.

The SMM also observed the movement of other pro-Russian heavy weapons and troops in the Donetsk region. The Mission observed the movement of a T-64 tank eastward toward Makiivka and a T-72 that had been loaded onto a trailer near Donetsk. The SMM also noted the movement of eight assorted vehicles carrying people in military uniforms southward out of Ilovaisk. The SMM observed another column heading towards Luhansk but was not allowed to follow them to their destination.

 

Remaining Tensions

Despite progress made with the pulling back of heavy weapons, there is still fighting in the wake of the ceasefire brokered in Minsk. Alexander Hug of the OSCE notes fighting remains near the contested city of Mariupol and the Donetsk airport. Ukrainian government is also skeptical about the rebel weapons pull out. Ukrainian military sources believe that the pro-Russian forces are merely using the ceasefire to regroup for a new offensive. The fact that the pro-Russian forces continue to train despite the ceasefire could be seen as preparations for such an offensive.

The separatists however claim they are merely preparing to take up a defensive position against the Ukrainian army that they see as invaders. Ukraine is concerned that during the ceasefire the pro-Russian forces will push towards Mariupol, a strategic city for both sides. When asked about plans for Mariupol, Denis Pushilin, a separatist representative at the Minsk talks, stated that the separatists would opt for diplomacy to take objectives wherever possible. This has not abated the concerns of Mariupol residents. Yuriy Zinchenko of Metinvest Ilyich Steel Works is concerned about the example of Debaltseve, where rebels ignored the ceasefire to grab the key transportation hub.