Ukraine, separatists sign new truce to replace failed Sept. 5 accord

New truce in eastern Ukraine conflict still vulnerable to rogue fighters

After more than 1,000 combat-related deaths in eastern Ukraine since a cease-fire was declared three months ago, government forces and pro-Russia separatists have signed a new truce to take effect Friday and require withdrawal of all heavy weaponry, international monitors reported Tuesday.

But as with the Sept. 5 cease-fire that has been violated on an almost daily basis, the renewed pledge to end eight months of fighting over territory in eastern Ukraine is likely to have little deterrent effect on irregular forces fighting on both sides.

Heavily armed Cossack nationalists from southern Russia have reportedly been waging assaults on Ukrainian government troops independent of the separatists occupying the Luhansk and Donetsk regional government buildings since April. Ukrainian nationalist factions such as the Right Sector and Azov battalion likewise have little coordination with the armed forces commanded from Kiev, the capital.

Nevertheless, mediators with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe announced that representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the separatists had agreed "in principle" to commit themselves to a new disengagement plan that will halt fire along the front lines on Friday and begin withdrawing heavy weapons on Saturday.

The OSCE monitors, who have been in eastern Ukraine for more than six months to log incidents of irregular military activity, acknowledged that the factions continued to dispute details of the cease-fire at the Saturday meeting during which is was hammered out. The monitors from the 57-nation alliance, to which Russia and Ukraine belong, also reported encountering eight military convoys headed into rebel-held territory and escorted by vehicles marked with the separatists' "Novorossiya" emblems.

Novorossiya is the Russian imperial name for the territory spanning the Black Sea between the Russian border and Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, which the Kremlin annexed nine months ago. More than 4,300 people have been killed in fighting since the Crimean seizure.

A separate agreement was reported between Ukrainian government forces and rebels fighting them over the shattered Donetsk airport terminal but that truce also appeared to have little influence on the savage fighting. Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed as government troops repelled an overnight attack by the Russia-backed fighters, said Col. Andriy Lysenko of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council. The rebels have attempted in vain to take the airport since an initial attack in May.

Word of the new efforts to halt the fighting as winter sets in coincided with a fresh reprimand from NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, who accused the Kremlin of "continued and deliberate destabilization" of Ukraine.  

"The choice of Ukraine to join the family of European democracies is clear and it has to be respected," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told the gathering in the Belgian capital.

The alliance's foreign ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, also approved more nonlethal military aid for Ukraine and endorsed plans to have a rapid-reaction force up and running by early next year to respond to any further provocations or threats to the Western bloc's 28 member states.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's steadfast objection to NATO membership for Ukraine is seen as the impetus for the Kremlin's aggression against its former sister Soviet republic. Russian officials deny involvement in the conflict, which they portray as a civil war provoked by Ukrainian nationalists.

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