The peace process to end a 30-month-old violence in eastern Ukraine showed clear signs of progress in September, as the government army and pro-independence insurgents finally agreed to withdraw their weapons and troops from the frontline after the establishment of a shaky ceasefire.
Yet the conflict remains far from over as the sides show little enthusiasm for political compromise.
CLEAR ROADMAP FOR PEACE
It has become tradition that the Ukrainian army and insurgents establish a ceasefire every September to allow children to peacefully return to school.
However, this year's "back-to-school" truce was unlike the previous one and was short lived.
Only two weeks into the ceasefire, the conflicting parties reported an escalation of the hostilities in which six combatants were killed and 15 others wounded.
The quick crunch of a truce was yet another example of how the implementation of Minsk peace deal, brokered by Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine in early 2015, has stalled.
To revive it, on Sept. 15, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault paid a visit to Kiev, which some Ukrainian analysts said became a turning point in the peace process.
"During the briefing in Kiev, the French foreign minister for the first time has announced a detailed plan, in fact -- a roadmap, for the implementation of the Minsk agreements," said Aleksey Popov, an expert at the Kiev Center for Political and Conflict Studies.
The proposed plan includes three stages, the first of which is a security phase envisaging a cessation of hostilities and separation of forces along the frontline.
Next comes a political stage that gives international monitors full access to the conflict area and drafts a set of laws aimed at settling the confrontation.
The final step is the practical stage, providing for holding local elections in the Donbas region and granting it special status.
"In fact, this three-step plan was proposed to introduce broad local autonomy in Donbas in accordance with the Minsk agreements," said Ruslan Bortnik, a political analyst at the Ukrainian Institute of Political Management.
The new roadmap, which established more or less a clear strategy for the implementation of the Minsk agreements, has the prospect to become a major diplomatic breakthrough in settling the conflict.
The ceasefire that had been ignored by both sides for months is largely holding, and more importantly the parties have agreed to withdraw their troops and weapons from the contact line.
A distinctive feature of this agreement is that it provides for separating forces at only three areas of the frontline during the initial stage, unlike the preceding failed deals, which stipulated a simultaneous pullback on the entire frontline.
Certainly, the gradual withdrawal has a better chances of being fully implemented since it would be easier to control and verify.
"The three areas are just the beginning. If the first experience proves itself effective, we plan to carry out the withdrawal on dozens of other sites to gradually complete the process of separating forces along the entire 426 km-long frontline," said Eugene Marchuk, a Kiev representative in the security subgroup of the Ukraine crisis Contact Group.
Yet, some local experts do not share the same optimism regarding the possibility of demilitarization, saying that the pullback of weapons and troops does not mean they cannot return if tensions escalate.
"I think that these actions would have a positive effect, but it is questionable how long it will last," said Volodymyr Fesenko, the director of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies
"Experience suggests that there could be an inverse trend in this situation because there is no single provision in the Minks agreements that was implemented irreversibly and in full so far," said Fesenko.
The obvious readiness of the conflicting parties to make advances on security issues indicates that they are already looking for a way out of the conflict and ready to stop the fighting.
However, the cessation of the hostilities and the withdrawal of forces, even if completely implemented, do not guarantee a durable peace in the area.
"The creation of the security zone, even along the entire frontline, will not lead to the resolution of the conflict. It could only turn the situation into a 'frozen conflict,'" said Mykola Sungurovsky, the director of the military programs at the Razumkov Analytical Center.
To push the peace process ahead, the conflict settlement plan suggested by the French and German foreign ministers needs to be implemented in full.
Yet distrust between both sides remains. Examples include procrastination in releasing prisoners, failing to grant international monitors full access to the conflict zone and little preparation for establishing a legal basis for the autonomy of Donbas.
Furthermore, the practical phase has even fewer chances for realization because of deep divisions inside Ukraine's ruling political elite.
Even if Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his faction prepare the necessary legislation for the special status for eastern regions and submit it to the parliament, there seems little prospect that the law would gain enough support from the lawmakers.
"The probability of making the Constitutional amendments on decentralization is negligible, at least this year. President Petro Poroshenko does not have enough political resources in the parliament to make these changes," said Andrei Zolotarev, a political analyst at Third Sector Centre.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine could last as long as each side insists on demands that the other side rejects.
The conflicting parties must do more to show a real commitment to compromise in order to break this vicious circle. It may just be the only way to finally put an end to the violence that has killed more than 9,600 people.