NATO’s top military commander says he is hopeful the new agreement to create a buffer zone between Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian separatists will calm the conflict.
However, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove said the current situation was “not good,” with Russian troops still inside Ukraine.
Breedlove said the cease-fire signed earlier this month was “in name only” with violence levels in the past few days as high as they were before the truce.
Under the new pact reached in Minsk Saturday, Ukrainian troops and the separatists must each pull back their artillery 15 kilometers from the front line to form a 30-kilometer buffer zone.
The so-called “Minsk Memorandum” also requires both sides to withdraw all foreign “mercenaries” from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. Moscow has denied accusations by Ukraine and Western nations that Russian troops have been fighting alongside the rebels.
But, Breedlove said Russian forces were in eastern Ukraine, even though their numbers have decreased.
He said some have returned to the Russian side of the border, but have not returned home and “are still available to bring their military force to bear on Ukraine should it be desired.”
Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine told reporters after the Minsk meeting Saturday that both sides have employed foreign mercenaries.
Saturday’s agreement, negotiated by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the separatists and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe(OSCE), aims to reinforce the September 5 cease-fire, which has been repeatedly violated.
Monitors from the OSCE will oversee the pullout from the buffer zone. The OSCE said the “security and freedom of movement” of its monitors “will be essential for them to do the work that has been entrusted to them.”
Even as the new agreement appeared set to ease tensions, explosions rocked a munitions factory in the rebel-held city of Donetsk Saturday, with media reports identifying shelling as the cause.
Separately Saturday, a convoy of Russian trucks entered Ukraine with humanitarian aid for Donetsk – the third such convoy sent to eastern Ukraine in recent weeks.
The convoys have crossed the border without Ukrainian authorities’ permission, leading Kyiv to question whether Moscow is using the shipments to supply the separatists with weapons.
In addition to the issue of continued strikes and clashes, negotiators have yet to address the most difficult aspect of the conflict – the future status of the rebel-held regions.