The European Union said on Thursday 18 February that a rebel offensive in Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine was a “clear violation” of the ceasefire. The EU’s foreign affairs head, Federica Mogherini, called for the separatists to stop all military activities. Mrs Mogherini’s statement came only moments after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had announced that 80 percent of Ukraine’s troops had withdrawn from Debaltseve. Mrs Mogherini added that “safe passage for all those who want to leave the area must also be ensured.”
According to Moscow, Ukrainian forces had attempted to fight their way out of this strategic town after being encircled but President Poroshenko strongly denied this claims saying that they had never been surrounded in the first place. The rebel advance on Debaltseve regardless of the recently negotiated and internationally-backed ceasefire has been widely condemned. In addition to the EU statement, NATO chief, Jens Stoltenberg, said that the rebel offensive made the recent ceasefire deal less credible and urged the Kremlin to “use all its influence on the separatists to make them respect the ceasefire.” Mr Stoltenberg also called on Moscow to withdraw all its forces, artillery, and defense units from Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said that the rebels’ advances on the town had not violated the ceasefire as Debaltseve was a rebel-held city when the ceasefire agreement was signed last week. Mr Lavrov further asked separatists to provide troops who surrendered with food and clothes and said he hoped the situation in the city would “not be used to find a pretext to actually undermine the agreement”.
It is estimated that about 5,000 civilians are trapped in the town, many struggling to find shelter from the harsh winter and without much access to food or water. The EU called for an immediate access for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to assume its monitoring and verification functions. Brussels also reaffirmed that “the EU stands ready to take appropriate action in case the fighting and other negative developments in violation of the Minsk agreements continue.” The EU warned already last week that more sanctions might be imposed if the new ceasefire signed in Minsk was breached.