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Ukraine's 'indefinite' truce - will it bring any change?

AFP , Saturday 31 Dec 2016
Putin
In this Monday, Dec. 26, 2016 file photo Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the meeting in St.Petersburg, Russia (Photo: AP)
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The sceptics are out there -- and so are the shells echoing over the decimated war zone of eastern Ukraine that is supposed to be protected by a new "indefinite" truce.

The announcement of latest armistice in the 31-month conflict that has roiled the EU's backyard at the cost of nearly 10,000 lives came after several days of unusually heavy clashes that killed 10 Ukrainian troops and an undisclosed number of insurgents.

Only one Ukrainian soldier has died in the week since the ceasefire began.

Yet each side accuses the other of pelting dozens of missiles every night in what is supposed to be a time of peace and good will.

The question is whether this deal will collapse like the two prior peace agreements and four temporary ceasefires -- all tied to specific dates like religious holidays or the start of a school year -- or might actually let the mortars die down.

Talk of halting hostilities in the separatist areas of Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Lugansk comes at a time of immense geopolitical change.

The US election saw Donald Trump beat the hawkish Hillary Clinton in a drama-filled contest that was closely watched in Ukraine.

The reality TV star and property magnate has professed his admiration for Vladimir Putin -- the Russian leader Ukraine accuses of launching the war two months after the Moscow-backed president was ousted in Kiev in February 2014.

Some believe Putin may want to get on Trump's good side by reining in the militias in order to get US sanctions lifted from Russia's critical oil and gas sectors.

The counter-argument says Putin will simply feel free to do what he pleases with Trump -- who once had trouble pinning down who controlled Russian-annexed Crimea -- in power.

"The end of the war fully depends on Putin," said Moscow military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.

Russia itself denies any role in the conflict.

Germany and France have spearheaded nearly two years of peace talks that have been hit in past months by new problems such as Britain's exit from the European Union and a populist wave sweeping the continent.

Several European diplomats have said in private that both countries are tired of Kiev's resistance to even the most minor concessions agreed under a February 2015 peace deal Paris and Berlin helped broker to end the bloodletting.

The most important one would award the separatist regions limited special status that would let them set up their own local councils and police forces.

Lugansk peace negotiator Vladislav Deinego admitted there has been a "significant drop in the number of attacks."

"But in order to see further progress in peace talks or for us to gains special status, we need a complete halt to the fire."

Some European officials urge patience.

"What is required is political will," said Alexander Hug of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

"They have shown in the past that they can cease fire when they want to," the OSCE's Principal Deputy Chief Monitor for Ukraine told AFP.

Ukraine's army was in a shambles and riddled with corruption when the separatists began their revolt in April 2014.

But Western military equipment such as radars as well as massive Ukrainian spending have turned the army into a well-fortified force that is no longer as easy for the Moscow-backed fighters to catch by surprise.

A deal between Putin and Trump might end the flow of Russian weapons and troops that Western reporters have seen pouring into the war zone for years.

"Without Russian parts and ammunition, the rebels can last a couple of weeks at the most," Ukrainian military analyst Sergiy Zgurets told AFP.

Domestic pressure on Ukraine to stop its young generation from dying in combat is also a factor.

Nationalist sentiment -- as well as tremendous fury at Russia -- was high when the war first started and those passions still linger.

But war fatigue has also set in.

"People are tired of war," said Kiev political analyst Vadym Karasyov.

Only 14 percent of those polled jointly by two of Ukraine's top research centres in mid-December said they wanted fighting to continue "until all the territory was returned to Ukraine."

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