Despite a cease-fire that went into effect one minute after midnight on Sunday, the conflict has apparently resumed between pro-Russia separatists and Ukraine government forces, but with clear Russian involvement.
The European Union has responded by activating sanctions against nine organizations and 19 people in Russia, including two Russian deputy defense ministers and Iosef Kobzon, age 77 — a Jewish man known as the “Russian Frank Sinatra.”
Kobzon is a long-time member of the Russian parliament. Sanctions were imposed against him because he “visited the so-called Donetsk People’s Repubic and during his visit made statements supporting separatists” after the Kremlin annexed Crimea, seizing it from Ukraine, the EU Official Journal explained. Donetsk is Kobzon’s birthplace.
For weeks the Russian-backed separatists have been focusing their attention on laying siege to the railway hub of Debaltseve, which so far has remained under the control of the Ukraine forces.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said at a briefing over the weekend that photos snapped in eastern Ukraine provided “credible pieces of evidence” that Russia herself – and not just separatist rebels – has been involved in the conflict.
“We are confident that [large amounts of artillery and multiple rocket launchers seen in the images around Debaltseve] are Russian military, not separatist systems,” Psaki said.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in a phone conversation on Saturday to discuss the situation. Kerry expressed concern over what he called efforts by Russia and separatists to cut off the town ahead of the cease-fire.
Artillery fire was also exchanged in massive shootouts around the rebel-held regions of both Donetsk and Lugansk. Rocket attacks were directed at areas around the government-held Azov Sea port city of Mariupol on Saturday as well.
Last week a teacher at the Chabad-Lubavitch preschool was killed in Donetsk when a rocket slammed into her apartment, killing her instantly. Irina Shelkayeba was an active member of the Donetsk Jewish community and a teacher at the Ohr Avner Preschool, Rabbi Aryeh Schvartz told Chabad.org.
The Beth Menachem synagogue – the only synagogue left in Donetsk – survived a narrow miss in a rocket attack that followed Shelkayeba’s death the same day. Instead, a minibus in a bus station some 300 meters away was hit by a shell in an attack that followed on the heels of the one that killed Shelkayeba.
Four people were killed in that attack, including the driver of the bus, which was incinerated along with a nearby vehicle. Nevertheless, the synagogue’s morning minyan (quorum) gathered to pray the regular morning service 90 minutes later as it does each day. Emergency food and supply packages sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews were then distributed at the Jewish Community Center next door to the synagogue.
The city’s Chabad emissary, Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, said, “We have recently known many especially difficult and terrible days. I ask that Jews worldwide pray for their brethren in the war-torn territories – for everyone living in danger – and that they should all have peace and security.”