The humbling pullout of Ukrainian troops from the strategic town of Debaltseve, with potentially heavy loss of life and equipment for Kiev, puts the latest phase of European cease-fire diplomacy into serious question, even as Western nations remain divided over how and whether to more robustly arm Ukraine.
The battlefield success appears to give another implicit victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin, while handing a potentially direct military and political loss to Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, who must now explain ongoing chaos and loss in the eastern part of his country despite an apparent diplomatic agreement.
On Wednesday night, Mr. Poroshenko called for UN peacekeepers to deploy immediately. Meanwhile today, French and German leaders spoke by telephone with the leaders of Ukraine and Russia, the Associated Press reports from Paris, about the “cease-fire that has been faltering.” Agence France-Presse added a statement out of the talks that, "The breaches in the ceasefire seen in recent days were denounced."
The sudden withdrawal of government troops from Debaltseve, which is situated on a key rail line and whose capture ties together two main rebel-held territories, continues nearly a month of defeat and retreat by Kiev in its eastern region, and a further collapse of the Minsk Agreement negotiated last fall.
The now-broken cease-fire negotiated by French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel adds to a string of ineffectual responses, analysts say. The new effort was agreed to last Thursday, but not implemented until Sunday. It was demolished two days later as what reporters describe as rebel Cossack forces overwhelmed Ukrainian troops, many of whom retreated on foot, through cornfields.
A mounting number of reports, in fact, suggest that no cessation of fighting on any front in eastern Ukraine this week actually took place, according to The New York Times.
Ukrainian officials claim that 80 percent of their troops, or about 2,500 soldiers, made it out of the contested city. Rebels say they have captured more than 500 soldiers.
AP reporters witnessed Cossack forces gathering in the heart of Debaltseve:
Rebel fighters, many of them Cossacks, roamed the streets of Debaltseve on Thursday, a day after Ukrainian forces began withdrawing from the besieged town. The mood was celebratory, with fighters laughing, hugging each other and posing for photos.
Nikolai Kozitsyn, a Russian Cossack leader who has been a prominent warlord in separatist eastern Ukraine, was seen driving around in a Humvee-like vehicle that had been captured from Ukrainian troops.
Rebel leaders backed by Moscow today denied that the taking of Debaltseve was a cease-fire violation, saying that the city had already been surrounded by rebel forces before the cease-fire went into effect, and was thus fair game. Mr. Putin on a visit to Hungary Wednesday appeared to back the position of rebels.
Analysts point out that Putin is in the enviable position of not having to consult allies, security organizations, political polls, or other constituencies in supplementing his territorial seizures that date to the de facto annexation of the Crimean Peninsula a year ago. Putin has not concerned himself with the problems of his economy in order to achieve his larger aims.
At the same time, the Western nations that Putin has consistently thumbed his nose at appear to want to solve the crisis with a set of no-risk or little risk options of sanctions and prohibitions.
The question now is what the rebels do with their new-found gains. As Russian expert Mark Galeotti of New York University noted in The New York Times:
"The real question is whether now that they have Debaltseve, the rebels and Russia are willing to sit back and let the conflict freeze, or whether they continue their town-by-town push while still proclaiming their support for the cease-fire,” Professor Galeotti said. Referring to two other contested areas of eastern Ukraine, he said, “They could head for Avdiivka, or redouble their efforts on Mariupol, but I suspect Moscow will want now to settle back, at least for a while, and let Western attention wander.”
The Economist this week wasted little time quibbling over possible cross-cultural misunderstandings about the crisis in Ukraine and its challenge, placing the onus on Putin. The British publication says Putin cares little about sanctions or his free-falling currency, since the view from Moscow is that Putin is winning a larger game of dividing and mocking the West.
Look at the world from his perspective, and Mr Putin is winning. For all his enemies’ machinations, he remains the Kremlin’s undisputed master. He has a throttlehold on Ukraine, a grip this week’s brittle agreement in Minsk has not eased. Domesticating Ukraine through his routine tactics of threats and bribery was his first preference, but the invasion has had side benefits. It has demonstrated the costs of insubordination to Russians; and, since he thinks Ukraine’s government is merely a puppet of the West (the supposed will of its people being, to his ultracynical mind, merely a cover for Western intrigues), the conflict has usefully shown who is boss in Russia’s backyard. Best of all, it has sown discord among Mr Putin’s adversaries: among Europeans, and between them and America.