Ukrainian Separatists Take Two Villages in Push on Key Port

Fighters with the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic army walk by a destroyed Ukrainian armoured personnel carrier at a check point on the road from the town of Vuhlehirsk to Debaltseve, February 20, 2015. Baz Ratner/ REUTERS

The pro-Russian separatist group calling itself the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) announced fresh gains towards the key Ukrainian port city of Mariupol today, as government forces reported the rebels were indeed preparing to move in on the city.

A spokesman for DNR told Russian news agency RIA Novosti that the separatists had today taken two villages situated inside the mutually agreed buffer zone, bringing them closer to the northern extremities of the port city of Mariupol, which is the second largest city in the Donetsk region.

"Yesterday evening we liberated Pishtevik and Pavlopol near Mariupol. The national guard was unable to affirm their control there," the spokesman said.

However, reports of Pishtevik and Pavlopol being taken have not been verified by pro-Kiev forces on the ground. Ukrainian newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda spoke to the press secretary of the local volunteer battalion Sector M who said: "These points are situated in the buffer zone, they are not under our control and we do not have anyone stationed there. The militants can simply go there."

Prior to the Minsk agreement two weeks ago, Pavlopol had been under the control of Kiev forces but according to the Sector M spokesman the territory was lumped into the buffer zone as part of the agreement and government forces have since pulled out.

According to the official Facebook feed of Ukraine's military operations in eastern Ukraine fighting is intensifying in the vicinity of Mariupol as the town of Shirokino, east of the city came under heavy fire in the early hours of the morning.

In a press briefing this afternoon Andriy Lysenko, the spokesperson for Ukraine's operations, said that shelling had decreased during the night, but confirmed that separatists were redeploying troops and equipment towards Mariupol.

Meanwhile Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs said that a rebel arms cache had been discovered in the city, including 10kg of explosives, other arms and uniforms resembling those of the Ukrainian police.

According to Lilia Shevtsova, Kremlinologist and Eurasia expert at Moscow's Carnegie Endowment for Peace, the "the second Minsk accord is unravelling".

"We don't have the confirmed information from the ground. But the separatists' attack on Mariupol will mean that 'Minsk-2' does not exist."

"The political arrangement favored by Putin under which Ukraine agrees to incorporate the separatists enclaves as independent entities, in exchange for truce has been doubtful from the very beginning," Shevtsova says.

"Debaltsevo has been the first open blow to the accord and today's Paris meeting of the four ministers of foreign affairs has failed to reach any mutual agreement which is a bad sign," she says referring to today's meeting between the ministers from Russia and Ukraine, mediated by their French and German counterparts in the French capital.

"After Debaltseve everything is possible," she adds.

Steven Pifer, former US ambassador to Ukraine believes, should fighting flare up around Mariupol, it may prove to be even more brutal than the fight for Debaltseve which threatened the stability of the agreement in its few days.

"Mariupol is much larger than Debaltseve. A fight in that city would prove far more bruising and bloody than the battle for Debaltseve," he says.

According to Pifer, a pro-Russian attack on Mariupol may both end the current truce agreement and hamper the chances for future peace deals.

"The attack by separatist and Russian forces on Debaltseve, in violation of the ceasefire, put the Minsk-2 agreement in jeopardy. If they now attack Mariupol, Minsk-2 is dead."

"If Minsk-2 collapses, it becomes very hard to see how one gets to a Minsk-3 agreement," he says.

The Donetsk rebels have made no secret of their desire to gain control of Mariupol. Last month DNR leader Alexander Zaharchenko said his rebels aimed to take "Mariupol, Slaviansk and Kramatorsk".

Radoslaw Sikorski, speaker of Poland's house of representatives told Newsweek Polska today today that if the rebels were to take Mariupol it would mean "the death of the current ceasefire agreement".