KIEV: The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany on Thursday agreed a roadmap aimed at ending a 10-month war between Kiev and pro-Moscow rebels, but skepticism loomed large as the West warned “much work” still needed to be done.
After a marathon summit in the Belarussian capital Minsk, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had reached a ceasefire deal.
Echoing cautious remarks from other leaders, Poroshenko described the 17-hour talks as “very difficult” and said he expected the implementation of the deal would not be easy.
Under the agreement, a ceasefire is to take effect at midnight Kiev time on Sunday (2200 GMT on Saturday) and heavy weapons are to be withdrawn from the frontlines of the conflict, which has already killed at least 5,300 people and driven a million people from their homes.
Hollande described the deal as “a comprehensive political solution”, while Merkel spoke only of a “glimmer of hope”.
“I have no illusions. We have no illusions,” she said, adding that “much work” remained.
The United States, which has said it could supply Ukraine with weapons if the conflict continues, cautiously welcomed the accord.
“The true test of today’s accord will be in its full and unambiguous implementation,” the White House said, including “restoration of Ukrainian control over its border with Russia.”
Secretary of State John Kerry said there was a “long road ahead before achieving peace.”
Kiev and rebel sources said fighting over the last 24 hours had killed 14 civilians and two Ukrainian soldiers.
The Ukrainian government also accused Russia of deploying another 50 tanks across the border overnight, with fighting expected to continue around disputed railway hub Debaltseve, which rebels claim to have surrounded.
Hollande, Merkel and Poroshenko flew from Minsk to Brussels for a European Union summit, where the French leader said it was essential to keep up pressure to ensure the accord’s success.
Poroshenko, also speaking in the Belgian capital, said: “It was very difficult negotiation and we expect not easy implementation process.”
European Council President Donald Tusk said Poroshenko had given EU leaders a “sobering assessment” of the deal.
Tusk said the 28-member bloc was ready “to take the necessary steps” to keep up the pressure on Russia, already hit by EU and US sanctions for its role in the crisis.
“Our trust in the goodwill of President Putin is limited, this is why we have to maintain our decision on sanctions,” he told a press conference.
Tusk added that the EU would go ahead with new sanctions against 19 Russian and Ukrainian individuals and nine entities next week, measures that had been suspended earlier to give the Minsk talks a better chance.
The roadmap — meant to ease a crisis that has plunged the West and Russia into their bitterest dispute since the Cold War — was signed by Russian and Ukrainian envoys, separatist leaders and European mediators from the OSCE.
A previous truce signed in Minsk last September quickly collapsed.
The latest talks were seen as a last opportunity for European leaders to save nearly bankrupt Ukraine from ever-widening defeats at the hands of rebels said by Kiev and the West to be armed and trained by Russia.
In rebel-held Donetsk, weary residents expressed little optimism.
“I don’t believe in it at all,” said Lyubov, 62, who would not give her last name. “Every time they sign an agreement, they say one thing and do another. I no longer trust anyone.”
Beset by war and corruption, Ukraine’s pro-Western government is struggling to enact legal and economic reforms that would help steer the former Soviet republic out of Russia’s sphere of influence and into Western institutions.
The Kiev government got a major boost Thursday with the announcement by IMF chief Christine Lagarde of a new financial rescue plan worth $17.5 billion.
In total, Ukraine will receive $40 billion (35 billion euros) in assistance over four years coupled with bilateral loans from other sources, Lagarde said, helping to stabilise Kiev’s finances after 10 months of conflict in the east.
The World Bank for its part announced it was prepared to provide up to $2 billion in financial assistance to Ukraine this year.
The new Minsk agreement is broadly similar to the first one, except that the new heavy weapons-free zone will be 50 to 70 kilometres (31-43 miles) wide, depending on the range of the weapon, double the width of the buffer zone agreed in September.
Kiev will also begin retaking control over the approximately 400-kilometre (250 mile) stretch of Russia’s border with rebel-held Ukraine, but only after local elections are held.
The border is entirely under Russian and pro-Russian rebel control and is used, according to Kiev, as a conduit for separatist supplies. The Kremlin denies this but has opposed Ukraine being allowed to regain control of the frontier.
While heavy weapons must be withdrawn, troops and rebels can remain where they are, handing rebels de facto control of the roughly 500 square kilometres of territory they’ve gained in recent weeks.
Separatist-held territories will be granted a degree of autonomy to be established through talks, and the right to decide which language they use.