This is What Russia Withdrawing from Ukraine Ceasefire Coordination Means
24 December, 2017

General Borys Kremenetsky (left), the former head of the Ukrainian side of the JCCC,  and representatives of the Russian side in the temporary headquarters in the Salt Symphony sanitorium, Soledar, Donetsk region, October 17, 2016. Photo credit: Hromadske.

On December 19, 75 Russian soldiers departed the Salt Symphony sanitorium in Soledar, Donetsk region. They had been based there since September 26, 2014 as part of the Joint Center for Monitoring and Coordination (JCCC), a tool for implementing a ceasefire on both occupied and Ukrainian government-controlled territory.

Russia’s exit from the JCCC comes amid a sharp escalation in fighting in the Donbas, which some believe may be connected to the withdrawal. It has also drawn increased attention to the JCCC, one of the lesser-known means for promoting peace in eastern Ukraine.

But Russia’s longer-term exit from the Joint Center increasingly appears uncertain. Russian authorities now say they are considering the return of their military personnel to the JCCC. According to comments from Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov published by the Interfax news agency, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed returning the troops during a phone conversation this week.

“Putin said we may consider such a possibility if we can have guaranteed understanding that the provocative actions by Kyiv against our military will stop and that they will...have conditions for fulfilling their functions," Peskov said.

Ukrainian military of the Joint Center for Control and Coordination (JCCC) at the Salt Symphony sanitorium, Soledar, Donetsk Region, October 17, 2016. Photo credit: Hromadske.

Russian Representatives of the JCCC, at sanitorium “Salt Symphony”, Soledar, Donetsk Region , October 17, 2016. Photo credit: Hromadske.

Why Make an Exit?

According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, the withdrawal of its servicemen was prompted by the Ukrainian side deliberately creating “a tense moral and psychological situation for the Russian service personnel involved in the center’s work.”

But Yuri Ostakh, the head of the Ukrainian side at the JCCC, denies these accusations. “Russian officers lived in the same conditions as officers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. There was no difference in food, accommodation, and trips. Both Russian officers and our officers remarked that relations were normal. There were no conflicts in the dining hall or elsewhere,” he said.

Furthermore, he added that the number of Russian military in the occupied territories greatly outweighed the number of Ukrainian personnel.

Ostakh and Russia’s Foreign Ministry also cited Ukraine’s new rule for entry of Russian citizens as part of the problem.

Set to be introduced on January 1, the regulation stipulates that, when crossing the border, Russian citizens will have to present biometric passports and submit biometric data. Russia’s Foreign Ministry says this counters provisions of the 1997 agreement on visa-free travel of Russian and Ukrainian citizens and “is unacceptable for Russian service personnel.”

Nevertheless, Ukraine is hoping for the return of Russian military to the JCCC.

How the JCCC Works

The Ukrainian and Russian militaries worked under the leadership of two generals — one Russian and one Ukrainian — jointly helping to ensure a halt to shelling along the front line. They also agreed on the withdrawal of troops from the contact line at a tripartite contact meeting in 2016.

In practice, it looked like this: there was a room in the sanitorium with telephones, where two Ukrainian and Russian officers were on duty. They took calls from their military personnel on a 24-hour basis, both from the occupied and Ukrainian government-controlled territories. When reports of shelling in one area came in, the other side called the place they believed the fire could be coming from.

This sometimes resulted in an end to the shelling. At times dozens of calls were required, and sometimes the generals would be called. Representatives of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) and “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LPR) also visited the room. But only as observers. They had no other rights or obligations.

At the end of October 2016, in an interview with Hromadske, the then head of the Ukrainian party in the JCCC, General Borys Kremenetsky, said that, with the help of their joint efforts, 70 percent of the shelling along the front could be stopped. But many Ukrainians complained that Kyiv was letting its own enemy watch over the course of the war while carrying out thr shelling.

The JCCC was created after the signing of the first Minsk Protocol on September 5, 2014. Its purpose was to ensure the implementation of the first paragraph of the protocol: a ceasefire.

Russian generals, who have changed in Soledar, were frequently suspected of actually controlling the militants on the other side of the contact line. Despite this, the Ukrainian side believed that the JCCC format worked.

Outside of work, relations between the two militaries have reportedly always been tense. Russian and Ukrainian officers had different schedules for canteen visits. And the Russian military, which was unarmed in Soledar, would be “escorted” by armed Ukrainians.

Why Did the Russians Leave the Center?

Officially, as the Russian Foreign Ministry says the Russians left the JCCC because of the "disrespectful attitude of the Ukrainians."

An alleged internal order from the Ukrainian side of the JCCC to the Russian military based at Salt Symphony somehow appeared in one of the anonymous pro-Russia Telegram messenger app channels. The Russian side was particularly outraged by two points in this supposed order: no more than 10 minutes for smoking and no smoking after 10 p.m.

It also determined which staircases in the sanitorium should be used by the Russians. However, Kremenetsky notes that rules determining who should use which staircases regarding which staircases existed in order to avoid conflicts.

Another pro-Russian Telegram channel also published an alleged Ukrainian military report, which discussed a case where a member of the military, seemingly for no reason, got into a verbal skirmish with one of the Russian officers and then threatened him. This appears to be part of the reason for the Russians leaving Soledar.

For their part, the Ukrainian military observers have left the occupied territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Meanwhile, representatives of the "DPR" and "LPR" remain in Soledar.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry called the demarche of the Russian military "a provocation that undermines the Minsk agreements and the desire to lift any responsibility from the side of the conflict for the consequences of armed aggression against our state."

Ukrainian diplomats also believe that Russia is deliberately trying to coerce Ukraine into dialogue with self-proclaimed "republics."

The former leader of the Russian group, General of the Russian Armed Forces Alexander Serzhantov (right), with representatives of the Russian (left) and Ukrainian (second military officer from the right) sides, at the the Salt Symphony sanitorium, Soledar, Donetsk region, October 17, 2016. Photo credit: Hromadske.

What Will Ukrainian Officers in Soledar Do Now?

Soledar still has Ukrainian military observers. They are not commenting on the situation.

Unofficially, according to information obtained by Hromadske, this silence is to avoid harming the implementation of another point in the Minsk protocol — the "all for all" prisoner exchange, which is expected to happen by the new year.

“The JCCC is working. We will help observers of the OSCE monitoring mission in their work.” That’s all that the representative of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Jozef Venskovich, told Hromadske.

In reality, the JCCC is also working on de-mining territories where separated forces and equipment are located, or in settlements where the military has been withdrawn. It also protects OSCE monitors.

It is worth noting that the JCCC was doing this on both sides of the contact line — meaning that, before patrolling certain areas, OSCE monitors reported their intentions to the center. The center would then inform them whether it was safe to go to a certain location or take a certain road. Now it is only possible to carry out this practice in the parts of the Donbas controlled by Ukraine.

Will this Affect the Shelling?

The Minsk protocol itself does not mention the JCCC. But the creation of a joint center was part of an agreement made between Ukraine and Russia based upon the initiative.

Many agreed the JCCC contributed to stopping the shelling. Recent events on the contact line indicate that Russia’s withdrawal has already had negative consequences.

Ertugrul Apakan, the head of the OSCE monitoring mission, said that shelling from December 11 to 17 reached the level recorded in Avdiivka last February, the most intense fighting throughout the last year of battle.