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As winter’s bitter cold hovers over eastern Ukraine, a glimmer of hope briefly emerged for the country’s war-ridden east. After 16 hours of grueling negotiations in mid-February, the leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia hammered out the terms of a cease-fire agreement they hoped would bring some measure of peace to a conflict that has caused 5,600 deaths since April 2014.
The White House applauded the deal while it also is considering sending defensive lethal aid to Ukraine—a move European leaders are against. Both sides do agree on one thing: Ukraine’s chances of winning a war against separatists supplied with Russian troops and tanks are slim. The Russian-backed rebels have gained an additional 200 square miles of territory in the past four months, and on Feb. 18 took the embattled city of Debaltseve in spite of a cease-fire.
There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the agreement, which called for a cease-fire between Ukrainian troops and rebels, a withdrawal of heavy artillery to create a 30-mile buffer zone between both sides, and prisoner exchanges. For starters, last September’s cease-fire agreement lasted only a few weeks. Some say Moscow will use the Feb. 15 deal as an opportunity to regroup.
Another glaring problem is the Kremlin’s repeated denial of direct involvement in the 10-month-long conflict. The U.S. government on Feb. 14 released satellite images it says show Russian heavy weapons crossing the border into eastern Ukraine just shortly before the cease-fire went into affect. Kiev says this is one among many deliveries from Russia since fighting broke out. Moscow merely acknowledges the possibility of “volunteers” visiting eastern Ukraine to support the separatists.
What looks like a Kremlin cover-up calls into question the reliability of any concessions agreed to in Minsk by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Look at the photos after the cease-fire agreement. Only Putin is smiling,” said Douglas Landro, a missionary with International Teams USA who has lived in Ukraine for the past 17 years. Landro, like many in Ukraine, believes the ceasefire is a delaying tactic while Russia awaits delivery of two Mistral class ships from France. “They do not need to remove any troops or return any border to Ukraine for a year—plenty of time to get their ships and then take Odessa and restart the conflict,” he said.
In Washington, Congress has considered supplying weapons to Ukraine’s armed forces. Critics of this strategy say it would invite an all-out assault from Moscow and a direct confrontation between Russia and the West. David Satter, a former Moscow correspondent and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, disagrees: “So far the evidence seems to suggest that it’s really the defenselessness of Ukraine—or the fact that it’s fighting without the modern arms that Russia has—that has made this whole thing possible in the first place.”
As the second Minsk agreement begins to unravel with separatists largely ignoring the cease-fire terms, many will take matters into their own hands. Landro launched a Facebook campaign to raise money for a pair of night vision goggles for a youth leader at his church in Ukraine. Sergey Ostapenko, a father of three, just got called to Debaltseve, the current hot spot of fighting where 12 of his friends were recently killed or wounded. “They were unable to defend themselves because of the darkness of the night,” Landro said.