In Minsk, the Belarussians played host to the Ukrainian government and the separatist rebels backed by Russia in an attempt to reach a truce in the months-long war being waged in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. According to wire services, an agreement has been reached despite the last-minute offensive:

It will go into effect at 2 pm GMT:

The Ukrainian government and pro-Russia rebels meeting in Minsk have signed a preliminary protocol to start a ceasefire, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says.

He said that the ceasefire would start at 14:00 GMT. The announcement came after reports of further clashes. …

The plan includes a halt to “active offensive operations” by the Ukrainian military and pro-Russia rebels, international ceasefire monitoring, unconditional prisoner exchanges and humanitarian aid corridors.

Or 3 pm:

Or whenever:

CNN reports that it will be effective 6 pm local time, or 11 am ET. It also notes one interesting member of the negotiating team:

 Ukraine’s government and separatist leaders signed a ceasefire deal Friday following talks in Belarus, Donetsk separatists said, raising hopes of an end to the nearly five-month conflict that has wracked eastern Ukraine.

The ceasefire will come into effect at 6 p.m. local time (11a.m. ET) Friday, the Donetsk People’s Republic Twitter feed said.

The talks brought together the leaders of the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics with former President Leonid Kuchma, as well as Russian representatives.

Kuchma’s corrupt attempt to pass the baton to another Russia-approved autocrat, Viktor Yanukovych, sparked the first Orange Revolution in 2004. Yanukovych eventually rehabilitated himself enough to win the presidency again, but got chased out of Ukraine altogether in the Euromaidan protests this winter. Kuchma had long been suspected of ordering the assassination of Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongdadze, the mysterious dioxin poisoning of Yuschenko during the 2004 election, and his attempt to fix the election for Yanukovych was the last straw for Ukrainians. His appearance in these truce negotiations is very, very interesting.

The government in Kyiv points out that the agreement forces Russia to get out of Ukraine:

Of course, that might be a little difficult to enforce. After all, the Russians insisted that they were never in Ukraine at all. No one actually believes that, but it does raise the question of how to enforce a retreat order on an adversary who denies advancing across the border in the first place. For instance, rebels and their Russian sponsors launched an attempt to seize the strategic city of Mariupol before a truce could be reached, all while Moscow denied having anything to do with it:

Ukraine says its forces are trying to repel a big offensive by the rebels to take Mariupol, a port city of around 500,000 on the Sea of Azov crucial for its steel exports. It stands about halfway between Russia and the Russian-annexed Crimea region.

“Our artillery has come and is being deployed against the rebels,” said the mayor of Mariupol, Yuri Khotlubey.

The commander of the Azov volunteer militia, Andriy Biletsky, said his men had regained territory from the rebels in a counter-offensive after they came within just five km (three miles) of Mariupol on Thursday.

“We brought sufficient artillery and reinforcements,” he told Reuters at one of the checkpoints erected on the outskirts of the port to defend it from the rebels.

Mariupol became a major focus of concern for Ukraine after the rebels broke away from their main strongholds further north in late August – backed, Kiev says, by Russian regular forces.

A quick look at a map demonstrates why Russia took such an interest in Mariupol. After seizing Crimea by sea, Russia planned to build a bridge connecting Crimea to their own sovereign territory, an expensive and lengthy project. Seizing Mariupol and grabbing the land corridor to Crimea would make an easier line of communication for Russia to the peninsula.

Will this cease-fire keep them from pursuing the land option through Mariupol? Perhaps for now, but don’t bet on that being a permanent solution. The big question will be what happens in the truce. If Russia forces Kyiv to hold a plebescite on autonomy or independence, the region will fall into Vladimir Putin’s lap just like Crimea. Even if that doesn’t include Mariupol, Putin will find some pretext to restart the fight to include it at some point. He has his game plan in place, and figures he can out-wait the West while it gets distracted once the fighting dies down now. So far, Putin’s been winning his bets, and don’t expect him to pass on a chance to let them ride for a while longer.

In other words …

Let’s hope not, but it’s probable.