Europe

Ukraine, Russia and the ceasefire that never was

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Media captionFergal Keane: "These elderly people aren't getting their pensions so there is no cash"

When 1,000 people have died in less than three months, when civilians cower in basements and tens of thousands more flee their homes we can no longer speak of a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.

It is a fiction. All that has happened is that the front lines have remained static. There are no big offensives going on - for the moment.

In light of the evident failure of the ceasefire, talks are today scheduled to take place between military representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the rebels to discuss a new peace deal in the Donetsk region.

Despite an apparent truce called at Donetsk Airport on Monday night, fighting there is continuing.

In a separate announcement, the rebels of the neighbouring Luhansk region said they had agreed with the Ukrainian military to cease fire on 5 December "in principle".

Image copyright Anatolii Stepanovanatolii
Image caption More than 4,300 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since separatist rebellions began in April

But all the morbid facts of war - the killing, maiming, terrorising - go on every day and night in the east.

On the fringes of Donetsk airport the rebels and Ukrainian forces exchange artillery fire. Rifles and machine guns rattle away in the freezing mist.

Artillery spotters on both sides watch for movement and call in strikes from the guns and multiple rocket launchers. As we crouched in a trench, shells whistled over and exploded to our rear.

We could not tell where they landed. Loud enough to shake the ground and make us hug the earth but far enough away not to shower us with shrapnel.

Image caption The BBC's Fergal Keane met children hiding in bomb shelters in eastern Ukraine
Image caption Shelling on both sides has continued despite the three-month ceasefire deal signed by Ukraine, Russia and rebels

Earlier rounds had shredded trees in the small wood where we were now taking cover. Mud had been thrown onto the road by the detonations.

Civilians are frequently killed by artillery strikes. While we were in Donetsk a 12-year-old boy was decapitated and a 55-year-old woman killed in a rocket barrage.

Locals blamed the Ukrainian army for that attack. Both sides have caused civilian casualties. The war is being fought mainly in urban areas like Donetsk or the other rebel capital, Luhansk.

In Donetsk we saw rebel armour parked next to a basement that was sheltering around 20 elderly people.

Among most people we met there was a fervent desire for an end to all fighting.

Lyubov's story

Lyubov Vasilievna was with her two grandchildren when they were caught in an artillery strike on the first day of the ceasefire last September.

They lived in the village of Lebedinskoye between the government lines at Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and the rebel positions further east.

Image caption Lyubov says she is traumatised by the death of her two grandchildren

The children - Nikita, 12, and Karolina, 6, - were killed. Lyubov, who was trying to hurry them to safety, was wounded herself.

I met her in hospital on the day of the tragedy. Back then she was still struggling to believe what had happened. Now she is deeply traumatised.

"It is difficult. It is very difficult. Because every day and night, I see the image in front of my eyes as though it were yesterday," she says.

"And I go to bed at night and I think maybe it could have ended differently because it is really, really difficult. Every day I remember it."

She remembered how in the mornings when the children woke they would call out to her. Nikita, who was severely disabled, was her "little sunshine" and Karolina would ask her for a hug.

"My soul aches because I'll never see them again. They'll never say again that they love me. I miss my grandchildren."

Her daughter, Tatiana, aged 29, was the children's mother. She lives a few yards from where the shell killed Nikita and Karolina.

Image caption There has been no investigation into the death of Tatiana's two children

She stares into the distance as she talks, a young woman lost and shuffling through the days, wrapped in disbelief.

"I don't believe it even now. People in the village have said that there is something wrong with my mind because I still don't believe that they are goneā€¦I keep on thinking they will come home soon, that they are in a hospital or in a nursery."

Nobody has investigated the deaths of Nikita and Karolina. There has been no accounting for what was done to them at a time when a ceasefire was supposed to be in operation.

'Theoretical hope'

Of course nobody will formally declare the ceasefire over. For different political reasons the rebels, the Kiev government, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the West have decided to live with the fiction.

The government struggles with a collapsing economy, constant political crisis and an army that is still too weak to take on the might of Russian-backed rebels. That army is also bolstered in the east by far right militias accused of serious human rights abuses.

Image copyright Daniel Dal Zennaro
Image caption The EU and US were unprepared for Russian President Vladimir Putin's (right) actions in Crimea

The rebels are faction-ridden and depend on Russia for their survival. They faced defeat at the government's hands last autumn until Moscow made a decisive intervention.

For now they have the firepower to sustain the stalemate, but their two republics - in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions - are illegal under international law and fertile ground for warlords and criminals.

Refusing to play

The European Union - still divided over its policy - and the White House place their hopes in sanctions against Russia.

But it is a theoretical hope.

There is no realistic expectation that President Putin will stop providing the rebels with their military strength.

For now sanctions are a price he is willing to pay to impose his will on Ukraine and confront the West expansion to Russia's borders.

Sanctions may limit the possibility of an escalation in fighting or an overt Russian invasion of the east.

Image copyright Eric Feferberg
Image caption The Telstilshik district of Donetsk has seen heavy shelling that has destroyed many people's homes

But nobody can be absolutely sure of that. The last nine months have been defined by Vladimir Putin's refusal to play by the West's idea of logic.

Having encouraged Kiev to embrace the idea of EU and Nato membership, the Europeans and Americans were utterly unprepared for President Putin's counter-strikes - first in Crimea and then eastern Ukraine.

There was a complacent assumption that Vladimir Putin would confine himself to rhetorical opposition to western expansion to his borders, and that he would rely on diplomacy to respond to the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow president in Kiev.

The fallacy of that belief is exposed in the airport suburbs of Donetsk and in the hospitals where the wounded and dying are taken.

This European war is no longer in the daily headlines but it grinds on, dangerous and unpredictable, a testament to a toxic combination of political failure and ruthlessness.