A kindergarten hit by 2 Grad rockets from occupied Horlivka in the evening of 18 December. Novoluhanske, 19 December 2017. Photograph:  

Peace to Ukraine, Ukraine, War in Donbas

Starting from 23 December, yet another ceasefire has started in the East-Ukrainian region of the Donbas following the pullout of Russian military observers from a ceasefire joint control body and a sharp escalation in hostilities at the frontline including attacks on residential areas. The New Year’s mass prisoner exchange remains endangered.

Russia’s pullout from ceasefire monitoring team

The Joint Control and Coordination Center (JCCC) for the issues of ceasefire and stabilization of the delimitation line was created in September 2014 in the East-Ukrainian town of Soledar in Donetsk Oblast, to control adhering to the Minsk Protocol, a ceasefire agreement signed by the representatives of the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG), including envoys of Ukraine and Russia under the auspices of the OSCE.

map of ORDLO

A map of the occupied territories of the Donbas. Image: Euromaidan Press

Representatives of the Russian-installed authorities of so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (“LNR” and “DNR”) have been represented in the TCG but have never been included in the JCCC, which initially consisted of 27 Ukrainian and 18 Russian military servicemen. Later the total number of JCCC members was raised to 128 officers, which were divided into 16 joint control groups, eight groups for controlling the ceasefire in the parts of Donbas uncontrolled by the Ukrainian government (four for the “LNR” and “DNR” each), and eight more in the Donbas region under control of the Ukrainian government.

Despite its limited influence, the JCCC has been a bilateral channel to negotiate local truces to provide the possibility for workers to repair damaged infrastructure, to aid civilians, to allow the belligerents to evacuate the wounded and dead.

On 18 December 2017, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced the pullout of all its 75 military observers from a joint group monitoring the truce in eastern Ukraine. The ministry provided vague explanations for this measure such as “the Ukrainian side has deliberately created a tense moral and psychological situation for the Russian service personnel involved in the center’s work and has hampered the execution of their official duties.”

The Ukrainian military denied the Russian allegations.

Both unrecognized republics declared that their representatives replaced the withdrawn Russians in the JCCC. The OSCE SMM confirmed they couldn’t reach the Russian representatives by phone on 18 December:

The SMM called JCCC duty phones in “DNR”-controlled Oleksandrivka (20km south-west of Donetsk) and Yasynuvata on 18 December and found that they were answered by persons who introduced themselves as “ministry of emergency situations” members. The duty phone in “DNR”-controlled Debaltseve (58km north-east of Donetsk) was answered by someone introducing himself as an “LNR” member of a “contact group.”

On 19 December the Russian observers were withdrawn from the Ukrainian territory, their Ukrainian counterparts returned to Soledar from the occupied territory.

US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker noted that Russia had recalled its officers from the JCCC right before a massive escalation in the Donbas:

US Mission to OSCE’s Charge d’Affaires Harry Kamien said on 21 December in Vienna:

“The conclusion drawn from this action is clear: the Russian Federation seeks to absolve itself of the incendiary role it plays in the Ukrainian conflict. By unilaterally withdrawing from the JCCC, Russia effectively renders it ineffective and exposes civilians and our SMM monitors to increased danger.”

Another escalation in the Donbas

Agreed in late summer by the Minsk Group (TCG) starting from the 1st of September, the so-called back-to-school ceasefire had significantly de-escalated hostilities until mid-December. The fire attacks still occurred in the fall, however, heavy arms weren’t used often and the total number of the attacks remained pretty low compared to August.

On 18 December about 17:00 EET, residential areas of the rural settlement of Novoluhanske was attacked with the multiple launch-rocket system BM-21 Grad from the direction of occupied Horlivka.

Police said that eight civilians were injured in the shelling, six women and one child among them; 104 houses (every fifth house in the settlemtn) were damaged, the explosions set five houses ablaze. A school, a kindergarten and a local medic facility also came under attack.