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Fighting In Ukraine Appears Untouched By Peace Deals And Cease-Fires


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The fighting in Eastern Ukraine continues just hours before a cease-fire is supposed to begin. Ukraine says pro-Russian rebels have brought in more troops despite a peace agreement that was reached on Thursday. Both sides accuse each other of killing civilians and more than 5,000 people have died in the conflict. One of the hardest hit areas is the rebel-held stronghold of Donetsk. That's where Courtney Weaver of the Financial Times joins us. Thanks very much for being with us, Courtney.

COURTNEY WEAVER: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The cease-fire is supposed to take effect at midnight local time. Do you expect that to happen?

WEAVER: I think everyone on the ground here is quite skeptical that the cease-fire will actually work based on the experience of the former Minsk cease-fire signed back in September. Then what you saw was a definite decrease in the fighting, but the fighting definitely continued. Right now what we're seeing is a concentration of fighting in Debaltseve, which is a railroad hub north of Donetsk. And the big question now is whether the rebels can finally capture this town before the cease-fire takes effect and whether they'll continue fighting there if they haven't seized it by the time the cease-fire has taken effect.

SIMON: If the deal has already been brokered, what advantage is there for the rebels to keep fighting and gaining ground?

WEAVER: So Debaltseve, for the Ukrainian side, has become a symbolic fight much so as the Donetsk airport did, but for the rebels it's actually quite important. It's a railway hub and it would provide crucial links for the rebel-held territory. So this seems to be where they're concentrating all of their fighting and trying to just make sure they can seize this area before the cease-fire takes effect. You have - basically what they have done at this point is they've encircled the East Ukrainian troops there and closed off the road to allow the Ukrainian troops to leave. So that's a big question of how - once you know the cease-fire takes effect, are they going to let the Ukrainian troops leave this area that they're surrounded in with their weapons or without their weapons or will the fighting there continue?

SIMON: And even if this deal goes through, as we understand it, Ukraine still won't have full control over large parts of the country. What's that going to look like?

WEAVER: This has been a huge question. So basically when you have the rebels come back to Donetsk from Minsk, they're talking about a very different agreement than what people in Ukraine are talking about. There's no talk here at all about the so-called Donetsk People's Republic and Donetsk People's Republic ceasing to exist or going back under Ukrainian control. The feeling on the ground here is that life is going to continue much the way that it was over the past few months, although it may be with less fighting.

SIMON: U.S. and European leaders have said that they'll enforce more sanctions against Russia if the cease-fire doesn't hold. Have sanctions so far stemmed what seems to be Russia's appetite for Ukraine?

WEAVER: I think that it's quite difficult to say. I mean, obviously a lot of Russia's economic difficulties right now are unrelated to sanctions. They're more related to the oil crisis. But Russia seems to be playing kind of the long game with this that every time that it seems like the U.S. is going to issue new sanctions or, as was the case with last week, talking about arming Ukraine, that Russia seems more willing to come to the negotiating table and try to find an agreement. So the question is whether this time if Russia really is interested in a lasting cease-fire or whether this is another diplomatic move for Mr. Putin.

SIMON: Courtney Weaver, of the Financial Times, speaking from Donetsk. Thanks very much for being with us.

WEAVER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.