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Ukraine Cease-Fire Goes Into Effect, With Caution

INDIRA LAKSHMANAN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Indira Lakshmanan. A cease-fire in Eastern Ukraine took effect at midnight, but the deal comes with many questions over how it will be implemented and whether it will last. The conflict has claimed more than 5,000 lives, and mistrust is high on both sides. Andrew Kramer joins us now from outside the town of Artemivsk in the disputed province of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. He's a reporter for The New York Times. Thanks so much for joining us.

ANDREW KRAMER: Thank you for having me on.

LAKSHMANAN: So Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko has ordered Ukraine's armed forces to stand down. But a pro-Russian rebel leader said that the agreement didn't apply to Debaltseve, a major battlefield in this conflict. Why not?

KRAMER: The claim by the rebel leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, was that his forces had surrounded the town of Debaltseve which is a focus of the fight now. And because of this, the town was now an internal region in the Donetsk People's Republic and, thus, no longer on the front line. And so the cease-fire would not apply.

LAKSHMANAN: So are there other commanders who are disputing this cease-fire?

KRAMER: This has been a rebel claim for this one area. Everywhere else they say they will observe the cease-fire. In fact, in the first 12 hours or so in other locations all has been quiet. Only in this area the fighting still continues.

LAKSHMANAN: So what are you seeing on the ground there today? Has it been completely quiet from what you know?

KRAMER: No, it has not. We drove out to a location about nine miles from Debaltseve. It's a very flat plane, and it was covered in mist. It was impossible to see what was happening. But we certainly could hear loud hollow explosions all around. It seemed that both sides were firing artillery at each other.

LAKSHMANAN: And from what we've seen the fighting was raging, not only now, but through the last hours before the cease-fire. Why were both sides so intent on getting in their final blows?

KRAMER: This city is really a key issue in the Ukraine war now. President Putin has said - of Russia has said as many as 8,000 Ukrainian soldiers are trapped inside the city. If the rebels are able to take them captive, it could be a decisive blow against Ukraine.

LAKSHMANAN: Now Ukraine's president has said that he would declare martial law nationwide if the cease-fire doesn't hold this time. Could he implement that in rebel strongholds?

KRAMER: He wouldn't be able to implement it in the rebel-controlled areas. But it's important because the military setbacks have political implications inside Ukraine. Many of the volunteer battalions that are helping Ukrainian army are now very critical of President Poroshenko and have been protesting in Kiev. There's a risk for this fragile and new government, that took power only a year ago, of domestic instability should there be a major military defeat here in the East. And this possible declaration of martial law may relate to the fragility of Ukrainian government in this circumstance.

LAKSHMANAN: If this cease-fire holds what's the next step?

KRAMER: The next step is the withdrawal of heavy weaponry away from the front lines, then local elections, then Ukrainian Constitution should be changed to allow greater autonomy for Russian-speaking areas in eastern Ukraine. And finally Russia has agreed to help Ukraine regain control over its border between Russia and the contested areas eventually leading to a political and diplomatic settlement. Of course, the first day of the cease-fire is not hopeful that all these steps will go smoothly.

LAKSHMANAN: Andrew Kramer is Moscow correspondent for The New York Times. Thank you so much, Andrew.

KRAMER: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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