A member of the Russian forces stands gu…A member of the RussiA member of the Russian forces stands gu...A member of the Russian forces stands guard by a Ukrainian Navy emblem painted on a wall outside the Ukrainian base in Perevalnoye, near Simferopol, blocked by Russian troops on March 6, 2014. Pro-Moscow authorities in Crimea on March 6 asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to examine a request for their region to join the Russian Federation, which will be put to a referendum on March 16. AFP PHOTO/ GENYA SAVILOVGENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

20 February 2017 – A move by Russia to recognise identity documents issued in separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine has raised concern in Kiev and western governments over Moscow’s intentions, even as efforts were under way to reinforce a shaky ceasefire in the region.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has ordered the government to temporarily recognise identification, education and qualification documents and other certificates as well as car licence plates issued in the self-declared ‘people’s republics’, parts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions that are not under Kiev’s control.

Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, said that the Kremlin’s announcement on Saturday was further “evidence of Russian occupation and violation of international law”. Moscow’s move was “troubling and inconsistent with [the] agreed goals” of the faltering Minsk peace accords, the US embassy in Kiev wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

Mr Putin’s surprise order came as the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany met on the side-lines of the Munich Security Conference to try to salvage the badly-shaken Minsk deal. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, backed a new promise for both sides to cease fire as of Monday.

European diplomats see the Kremlin’s move as a warning to Ukraine and the west, amid disappointment in Moscow that the new US administration has failed to side with Russia in the conflict. US vice-president Mike Pence met Mr Poroshenko in Munich on Saturday and reaffirmed US support for Ukraine and Washington’s insistence on the implementation of the Minsk agreement.

Some Ukrainian officials decried Moscow’s move as a complete abandonment of the existing peace process. “This step by the Kremlin completely destroys the Minsk process and is equal to Russia’s statement about an exit from that,” Russian news agency Interfax quoted Oleksandr Turchynov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, as saying.

Russia’s step could also be read as moving towards recognition of the self-declared ‘people’s republics’ in the separatist areas. “It’s the latest proof that the republic has achieved statehood,” said Ihor Plotnitsky, self-declared leader of Lugansk-based militants.

Russian politicians called the Kremlin’s decision a “humanitarian” move. They said it was aimed at facilitating travel and allowing Donbass residents to work and study in Russia. Though residents within the internationally-unrecognised breakaway regions are free to travel to Russia using their Ukrainian passports, their school degrees are not accepted in most countries but will now be recognised by Russia.

“It is important to understand that this decision has a strict temporary limit — until the implementation of the Minsk agreements,” said Konstantin Kosachev, head of Russia’s foreign relations committee in the upper house of parliament. He added that Mr Poroshenko could end the situation by “speeding up the implementation of [Ukraine’s] responsibilities under the Minsk agreements”.

The Minsk agreement was inked in February 2015. Although the deal’s provisions for a political solution to the conflict and a restoration of full Ukrainian government control over its eastern border have never been met, it had helped lower the level of violence — until recently. Last month, fighting flared to the worst levels in more than a year, an escalation foreign observers believe reflects attempts by Russia and Ukraine, respectively, to gain the attention and support of the new US government in the conflict.

European diplomats in Moscow said while Ukraine’s army had moved weapons before the escalation, it had not crossed the line of control separating both sides. Two diplomats said Russian and Russia-backed fighters in the separatist territories had “provoked” their Ukrainian adversaries, and the Ukrainian side had reacted forcefully.

Last week, contact groups involving representatives of the fighting parties surprised observers by agreeing new efforts to stop the violence. Mr Lavrov said following the four-way ministerial meeting in Munich that a ceasefire had been agreed for Monday. On February 20 “the ceasefire regime will start and withdrawal of heavy military hardware will also start,” he said, according to Russian media reports.