If a Grad Rocket Falls During a Cease-Fire…

How do you make peace in Ukraine when none of the people with guns are listening?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

DONETSK, Ukraine — Heavy machine-gun fire rang out on Sunday morning from inside Donetsk airport, which is held by Ukrainian government forces and has been the scene of intense fighting over the past four months. Shortly after came a dozen low booms of artillery fire, most likely Grad incendiary rockets.

These were the sounds of Friday’s cease-fire between Kiev and Russia-backed rebels falling apart. In further evidence of the cease-fire’s debility, homes were burning in the village of Spartak next to the airport after being shelled.

Natasha Kravchuk was on her way to try to save her house after a neighbor told her it was on fire. She has been living in an apartment her children rented in downtown Donetsk in order to be farther from the frequent shelling on the city’s outskirts.

"Yesterday, friends called from Crimea to congratulate us on the cease-fire, but no one here believes in any cease-fire," Kravchuk said between sobs as she passed through a rebel checkpoint on her way to Spartak.

Both government and rebel officials said they adhered to the cease-fire and blamed the other side for breaking it. But the backslide into fighting has revealed the virtual impossibility of enforcing a truce in a conflict where both sides are made up of a motley crew of fighting units with limited communications and an unclear chain of command. And while the cease-fire is advantageous for Kiev, it’s not clear the rebels are dedicated to preserving it.

On Friday evening, representatives of Kiev and the self-declared separatist governments began a truce as part of a peace plan outlined by Russian president Vladimir Putin, but shelling resumed the next evening near a Ukrainian military checkpoint outside Mariupol, on Ukraine’s southeast coast, destroying a fuel station and killing one civilian. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported small arms, rocket-propelled grenade, and artillery fire after rebel fighters shot at government forces in Shchastya, north of the separatist-held city of Luhansk.

The repeated violation of the cease-fire over the weekend prompted another round of finger-pointing in Kiev and Donetsk. A rebel commander at a checkpoint near the Donetsk airport who declined to give his name said the Ukrainian forces were firing on Spartak even though no rebels were there. "We have an order not to shoot except to save lives," he said.

But a video filmed by The Associated Press Television News (APTN) in Spartak on Sunday showed rebel forces operating there. A local resident in the video said that the rebels had first shelled the airport from the village, and then Ukrainian forces fired back.

This is the second truce to fall apart in eastern Ukraine in the last three months. President Petro Poroshenko declared a much-heralded cease-fire in June, only to withdraw it after 10 days. His announcement was immediately followed by a monthlong Ukrainian offensive that captured the rebel stronghold of Sloviansk and several other cities, suggesting the government forces had used the respite to reposition their fighters.

The Ukrainian military, in retreat for weeks and reeling from a bloody battle at Ilovaisk late last month, also appears to regard the current cease-fire as a chance to regroup rather than a step toward peace. Speaking on Ukrainian television on Friday, National Security and Defense Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko said this cease-fire will allow the military to reposition its troops and do reconnaissance on the location of enemy forces. "We have the chance to deploy our forces that are now being reformed and re-equipped, receive new arms and move into the starting position," Lysenko said.

Meanwhile, the rebels are fresh off a string of victories and likely don’t want to let the Ukrainian forces regroup. The prime minister of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic, Igor Plotnitsky, who participated in the cease-fire negotiations, said on Sunday that the Ukrainian Army and National Guard must be withdrawn from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, suggesting the rebels would continue their advance. His counterpart in Donetsk, Alexander Zakharchenko, said at a rally celebrating the victory over the Germans here in 1943 that "we liberated Telmanove yesterday," referring to a town in the region that has been in contention.

Both the rebel and government forces are comprised of a potpourri of fighting units, most of which center around an individual leader. This has led to a chaotic command structure that makes such truces difficult to enforce on the ground, according to Vladimir Ruban, a former lieutenant general in the Ukrainian Army who has been negotiating prisoner exchanges on behalf of Kiev and persuaded the rebels to participate in peace talks.

"Some people aren’t interested in a cease-fire … on both sides," Ruban said, suggesting rogue actors may keep fighting, despite their leadership’s intentions.

Slovo i Delo, an NGO that monitors Ukrainian politicians, recently compiled a list of 37 volunteer battalions fighting on the side of Kiev, many of which include radical fighters who say they don’t trust the military leadership. Members of the Azov Battalion, which is defending the coastal city of Mariupol, griped last week about the cease-fire that was then being negotiated, with one calling it a "political game."

The lines of communication between nominally allied groups are limited. The Defense Ministry blamed the recent massacre of volunteers at Ilovaisk on the "independence of volunteer battalions and lack of exact coordination between them and the military." The problem is partly technical: The Defense Ministry said Ukrainian forces had no ability to send encrypted communications during the battle. Apro, a militia fighter who fought in Ilovaisk on the pro-Ukrainian side and gave only his first name, told me they often communicated by cellphone because his unit has a severe shortage of radios.

The rebels’ ranks are equally disharmonious. The separatist military leadership is rife with would-be warlords. I witnessed a miniature turf war between rival groups in downtown Donetsk in June: Fighters reportedly loyal to Igor "Devil" Bezler, the top commander in the city of Gorlovka, took over the regional police headquarters, killing an officer. They vacated it after an hours-long gunfight with rebels from a Donetsk-based unit led by Zakharchenko.

In a July recording of what Ukraine’s security service said was a conversation between Alexander Borodai, then the prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and a Russian politician, Borodai complains of the chaos caused by too many commanders and problems communicating with certain leaders. The second half of the tape features an expletive-filled conversation in which voices identified as belonging to two other rebel officials complain about top military leader Igor Strelkov.

The rebel top brass has also undergone a shake-up in recent weeks after Borodai, Strelkov, and the previous prime minister of the Luhansk People’s Republic suddenly left their posts, confusing the situation further.

Nonetheless, leaders from both sides continue to publicly back the cease-fire, with Poroshenko boasting in Mariupol on Monday that 20 Ukrainian soldiers had been freed since it took effect. But while the leadership may promise a cease-fire, the ultimate question is whether field commanders will follow it.

"What cease-fire? No one is observing it," the rebel commander in Spartak said in the APTN video, before he and his men departed in a troop transport truck and a pickup with an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back, one fighter holding his fist up in the air in defiance.

Alec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, Politico, Slate, The Nation, the Independent, Vice News, and other publications. Twitter: @asluhn

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola