The European Union’s top diplomat has warned that the humanitarian and security situation has “deteriorated abruptly” in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting Kyiv government forces since 2014.
The comments by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on December 20 follow similar remarks made a day earlier by the U.S. special envoy for the Ukraine conflict, Kurt Volker, who said 2017 was the deadliest year in the region since the outbreak of violence three years ago.
The words of warning, issued in a statement by Mogherini's spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, came as international monitors reported intense shelling in recent days in parts of eastern Ukraine and continued violations of a cease-fire mandated under the so-called Minsk agreements.
The separatists in Ukraine's eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions have been battling Ukrainian government forces since April 2014 in a conflict that has killed more than 10,300 people.
The statement said OSCE monitors deployed in the region “have seen the highest number of cease-fire violations since February 2017.”
The positioning of forces near residential areas and “firing from or toward critical infrastructure shows complete disrespect for peoples' lives,” Kocijancic said in the statement.
Several cease-fire deals have been announced as part of the Minsk accords -- in September 2014 and February 2015 -- but they have failed to end the fighting.
“The cease-fire needs to be respected, [and] military forces must disengage and withdraw heavy weapons to verifiable storage areas,” she said.
“We expect Russia, in particular, to make full and immediate use of its influence on the separatists in this regard.”
The Trilateral Contact Group -- Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE -- on December 20 announced that representatives had agreed on a "comprehensive, sustainable, and unlimited" cease-fire connected to the holiday period in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to begin on midnight on December 23.
Mogherini's spokeswoman called the agreement a "necessary step," but she added that “immediate restraint in the meantime remains imperative.”
“We also reiterate that full, safe, and unhindered access for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission and its technical equipment throughout the entire area foreseen by its mandate is essential.”
She said the EU sees "full implementation of the Minsk agreements as the basis for a sustainable political solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine that respects Ukraine's independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity,” Mogherini added.
In his December 19 comments, Volker, the U.S. envoy, warned that hostilities are again ratcheting up in eastern Ukraine.
"A lot of people think that this has somehow turned into a sleepy, frozen conflict and it's stable and now we have...a cease-fire. It's a problem, but it's not a crisis," Volker said in a speech in Washington.
"That's completely wrong. It is a crisis. This has been the most violent year, 2017, and frankly last night was one of the most violent nights, certainly since February, and possibly this year," he said.