Waiting game in Ukraine as ceasefire holds

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he`d spent more enjoyable evenings. German Chancellor Angela Merkel talked of a "glimmer of hope" but said she was under "no illusions".

Kiev: Russian President Vladimir Putin said he`d spent more enjoyable evenings. German Chancellor Angela Merkel talked of a "glimmer of hope" but said she was under "no illusions".

A month after the ceasefire deal which she and French President Francois Hollande thrashed out with Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko at marathon overnight talks in the Belarus capital Minsk in February a peace of sorts is holding in eastern Ukraine.

The artillery and rockets that pounded the towns and villages of the Donbas region over the past year have been pulled back from many parts of the frontline, as called for by the Minsk agreement.

And while government forces and pro-Russian separatists continue to trade fire in a handful of areas, civilian casualties have dropped dramatically, triggering a refugee trickle homewards.

But if Ukrainians, still reeling from a war they see as not of their making, have learnt anything this past year it`s to keep their guard up.

From the capital Kiev, home of the Euromaidan protests that sent Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych packing last year, to Donetsk, capital of one of two regions that rose up against Kiev after his ouster, the peace is invariably described as doomed."What we have is not peace. We`re still at war," said Dmytro Nikitin, a 30-year-old former Maidan activist, who stands guard in his free time over the iconic square in a pair of fatigues, along with other "volunteer" police.

Like many people in central and western Ukraine the burly guard suspects the separatists -- and the Russian soldiers that Kiev and the West believe are leading them in battle, something Russia denies -- of using the ceasefire to regroup.

"In this time the terrorists are becoming very strong and we are doing nothing," he complained, using the government`s label for the separatists.

The ceasefire is also viewed with suspicion in the rebel statelets of Donetsk and Lugansk "people`s republics," where months of shelling caused massive destruction in some areas, leaving a deep well of resentment towards the "fascist" government in Kiev.

"I have no hope or faith in this ceasefire. We still hear shells falling, even if it`s less frequent than before," said 30-year-old Igor who lives near Donetsk`s bombed-out airport, where the fighting that has killed over 6,000 people continues on a near daily basis.

The failure of an under-resourced monitoring mission from the OSCE to properly vet the ceasefire has added to the climate of suspicion, with both sides accusing the other of keeping heavy weapons close at hand to fight another day.

Seen from Kiev, that fight is likely to be over the majority Russian-speaking port of Mariupol, which Ukraine suspects Moscow of coveting.

The government has accused the separatists of massing forces near the city but while skirmishes continue close by, the much-feared march on Mariupol against which Western leaders had warned Moscow has failed to materialise."I don`t think Russia or the rebels want Mariupol. I never thought that this was about territory in the first place. I think what Russia wants is control over Kiev`s political decision-making and Minsk II pretty much handed them that," Kadri Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations told AFP.

Liik was referring to the political aspects of the Minsk deal.

The accord gives Ukraine until the end of 2015 to amend its constitution to allow for "decentralisation" and to adopt legislation giving the separatist regions a form of self rule.

Only then will the state`s control over the border with Russia in separatist areas be restored.Liik said she expected Russia to weigh heavily on the constitutional negotiations, to keep Ukraine out of the West.

"Basically they want to be sure they can always manipulate the Ukrainian debates in ways they consider necessary. That way they will always be able to block any serious process towards joining NATO and manipulate Ukraine`s relationship with the European Union."

For Balazs Jarabik of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Putin is playing a waiting game.

Moscow, he said, was banking on Ukraine`s already ailing economy tanking further so that people in other majority Russian-speaking eastern cities, such as Kharkiv and Odessa would be "pissed off with the Kiev government" and revolt.

For the moment however, no other region seems inclined to follow the separatists down the path of a rebellion, which has displaced over 1 million people and wrought "merciless devastation" according to a recent UN report.

"Russia is essentially in trouble when it comes to soft power at the moment," said Jarabik.

"Donbas is essentially a war zone. None of the neighbouring regions want another Donbas."