- It's official: Ukraine has lost Donetsk Airport
- Ukraine's military spokesman Andriy Lysenko, who kept bragging about how Kiev troops had fought back the rebels, now looks like a complete idiot, again
- Even The Guardian concedes that "Ukraine has not offered any evidence that would suggest Poroshenko’s 9,000 figure is accurate"
This article originally appeared at The Guardian
Ukrainian forces admitted they had lost control of Donetsk airport late on Wednesday, as the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine agreed to move artillery back from the front line at a meeting in Berlin.
A statement from the meeting, also attended by France and Germany’s foreign ministers, said the quartet had agreed artillery should be withdrawn in accordance with a ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk in September. However, so far there has been little sign that a ceasefire can hold, and in recent days a new wave of heavy fighting has broken out, notably at the airport, a symbolic battlefield where Ukrainian forces appear to have sustained many casualties.
Earlier on Wednesday, Moscow and Kiev again traded mutual accusations of warmongering, as fighting and heavy shelling continued on the ground in east Ukraine and residential areas continued to come under fire.
Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko, told the World Economic Forum in Davos there were currently more than 9,000 Russian soldiers on the ground in east Ukraine, and said it was up to Moscow to end the conflict, which has so far cost at least 4,800 lives.
“The solution is very simple – stop supplying weapons … withdraw the troops and close the border. Very simple peace plan. If you want to discuss something different, it means you are not for peace, you are for war,” he said.
In Moscow, however, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said it was down to Kiev to stop its assault and begin negotiations, and called for an immediate ceasefire. He again denied that Russian troops were active in Ukraine, saying no proof had been offered, despite evidence of secret military funerals inside Russia, and repeated sightings of Russian military hardware inside Ukraine.
However, despite all the signs that Russia has backed the rebels with firepower and at times manpower, Ukraine has not offered any evidence that would suggest Poroshenko’s 9,000 figure is accurate. Privately, some rebels in Donetsk admit they have received help from Moscow, but deny that the number of Russian soldiers present is in the thousands. With Russia’s economy in trouble, there have been suggestions President Vladimir Putin may be looking for a way out of the conflict, and Lavrov again said Kiev should begin talks with representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”.
A longstanding pattern whereby rebels shell Ukrainian positions from close to residential areas, the Ukrainians fire back imprecisely and civilians die has been continuing in recent days, with a new wave of fighting breaking out that may be about strengthening positions ahead of a putative meeting between Putin and Poroshenko. The meeting was planned to take place in the Kazakh capital of Astana last week, with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president, François Hollande, in attendance, but it was postponed. Instead, the foreign ministers of the four countries met in Berlin late on Wednesday.
“The Russian objective seems to be to sustain a problem rather than find a solution,” said one western diplomat in Kiev. The sides agreed to a ceasefire in Minsk in September, but the truce was broken almost as soon as it started and has collapsed completely in recent days.
The most intense fighting has come at Donetsk airport, which until last May was a shiny new complex built for the Euro 2012 football tournament, but has now become a hugely symbolic military prize. It has been controlled by the Ukrainians since the beginning of the conflict despite several rebel attempts to seize it, and the airport’s defenders, colloquially known as “cyborgs”, have become cult heroes in Ukraine.
However, a renewed rebel offensive has dislodged them from most of the airport, and late on Wednesday evening Ukrainian volunteer brigades admitted they had lost all control over the complex, blaming poor decision-making among the army leadership. Several Ukrainian soldiers were wounded there on Monday after shelling caused the collapse of a ceiling. Rebel forces took eight Ukrainian soldiers prisoner who were then interviewed on Russian television. Russian journalists also showed what they said were the corpses of Ukrainian soldiers inside the airport building.
“There is a really thick fog, with visibility down to 20-30 metres,” wrote Ukrainian presidential aide Yuriy Biryukov on Facebook about the airport battle. “It is difficult to explain this to someone who hasn’t been at the front, but this kind of fog is fatal for morale, especially when you are trying to get close without being noticed, and understand you can be killed at any moment. Your nerves go quickly.”
“They are shelling us with mortars, tanks and Grads,” Vlad Chorny, a commander of Right Sector, a militant nationalist group fighting with Ukrainian forces, told the Guardian by telephone from Pisky, a village about a mile from Donetsk airport.
Lavrov said earlier in the week that under the Minsk accords, Donetsk airport should be handed over to the separatists, something which Ukrainian officials deny.
“It’s not for Sergei Lavrov to decide which parts of Ukrainian territory should be under whose control,” Serhiy Halushko of the Ukrainian defence ministry said.
For several days, the sound of outgoing artillery fire has been audible from central Donetsk, and incoming fire has also hit residential areas, adding yet more numbers to the civilian death toll. Other towns in the region have also come under fire as both the Ukrainians and rebels attempt to hit each other’s positions with Grad rockets and other imprecise weapons.
In Davos, Poroshenko held up a piece of metal from a bus that was hit by rockets in the town of Volnovakha. Thirteen civilians died and many others were injured when the bus was hit as it stood at a Ukrainian army checkpoint on 13 January. It appears the checkpoint was attacked with rockets fired from rebel-held territory.
“I have here part of the Volnovakha bus with the hits of the fragments of the Russian missiles which are hitting my people. It is a symbol of the terrorist attack against my country,” he said.
However, as artillery attacks apparently from Ukrainian positions continue to cause deaths among the civilian population, the anger among those people who have remained in the east is directed towards Kiev, making a lasting political settlement seem a very distant prospect.
Poroshenko seeks IMF aid
Ukraine has asked for a new bailout package from the International Monetary Fund, to help its economy recover from the damage caused by the ongoing conflict with Russia.
The president, Petro Poroshenko, made the request in person to the IMF managing director, Christine Lagarde, at a bilateral meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday.
Ukraine has asked the IMF for a new extended fund facility, or EFF. It would replace its existing $17bn standby facility, which is at least $15bn short of what Kiev needs.
Ukraine’s government bonds have slumped in value in recent weeks, on anticipation that it will default. The finance minister, Natalia Yaresko, hinted that Ukraine will seek to restructure its debt, telling reporters in Davos: “We will also consult with the holders of our sovereign debt with a view to improving medium-term debt sustainability.”
Lagarde said the IMF board would be convened as quickly as possible to consider Ukraine’s request, which she “certainly proposed” to support.
“This [EFF request] clearly is a demonstration of the Ukrainian authorities to conduct serious long-term structural reforms in addition to also adjusting their fiscal policy to make sure the Ukrainian economy is in a position to recover,” she added. Graeme Wearden