Ukraine says pulling back arms as US, Russia trade barbs

KIEV, Ukraine – Ukraine's military said Thursday, February 26, it was starting the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontline, bolstering a stuttering peace plan as the United States and Russia traded barbs over the conflict.

The announcement of the pull-back – a key part of a peace deal negotiated this month – comes after a shaky truce that was meant to come into force February 15 finally took hold across the conflict zone in recent days.

"Ukraine is today (Thursday) beginning the withdrawal of 100mm cannons from the frontline," the army said in a statement.

"This is the first step in the pull-back of heavy weapons and will be carried out exclusively under the supervision and verification of the OSCE (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe)." 

The withdrawal of all weapons over a calibre of 100mm is meant to contribute to a buffer zone between the two warring sides of between 50 and 140 kilometers (31 and 87 miles), depending on the range of the arms.

Rebels insist they have already begun withdrawing artillery, rocket launchers and tanks from some areas.

But there was no confirmation from the OSCE of any pull-back, with its monitors saying the warring sides had not provided the information needed to determine what, if any, arms withdrawals have occurred.

Under the terms of the peace plan signed by both Kiev and the rebels this month, the withdrawal is meant to be completed within 14 days. 

Fighting has died down dramatically over the past few days. Ukraine's military said for the second day running that there were no fatalities among its soldiers but that four had been wounded.  

International mudslinging

While fighting subsided, tensions between the West and Moscow swirled on unabated. 

Addressing US lawmakers on Wednesday, February 25, Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia and pro-Moscow rebels had failed to meet the terms of the ceasefire.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had put in place policies that "violate all the international norms with respect to territory and behavior," Kerry said.

"He has empowered, encouraged, and facilitated directly land grabs in order to try to destabilize Ukraine itself.

"To date, neither Russia nor the forces it is supporting have come close to complying with their commitments," Kerry added, renewing warnings that Moscow could face further sanctions.

But Moscow says threats of new punishment are evidence that the West is not interested in the success of the latest effort to stop fighting that has cost at least 5,800 lives since April. 

"Behind these calls lies the unwillingness of these figures, these relevant countries, the United States, the European Union, to seek the implementation of what was agreed," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. 

Russia has itself ratcheted up the pressure by warning it could cut off gas supplies to Ukraine – and, by extension, to parts of the European Union.

Putin said Wednesday that Ukraine had paid only enough for three or four more days of gas deliveries and that state-run energy giant Gazprom would "terminate the supply" if it didn't receive money fast. 

War games

The West says the best hope for a negotiated solution to the 10-month conflict lies with the truce, which last week won unanimous backing from the UN Security Council.

But breaches by rebel forces – especially their assault on Debaltseve, a strategic transport hub, and attacks on Ukrainian army positions near the port city of Mariupol – have exasperated the EU and US.

The peace plan also entails a series of subsequent steps including the start of discussion on handing over greater autonomy to the rebel regions and the reinstatement of Kiev's control over swathes of its border with Russia.  

British Prime Minister David Cameron this week announced his country will send up to 75 soldiers to Ukraine on a "training mission" but that they would not operate in the conflict zone. 

Up to 2,000 Russian soldiers were meanwhile taking part in drills near the Russian border with Estonia and Latvia, in a show of strength likely to alarm the EU neighbors. –