Amid the ‘Cease-Fire,’ Russian Forces Win a Battle in Ukraine

Kyiv Forced into New Retreat; US, Europe Must Increase Support, Atlantic Council Analysts Say

At midday February 18, three-and-a-half days beyond the designated hour for a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, fighting was continuing in the strategic city of Debaltseve, where Russian forces continue to pound a nearly surrounded Ukrainian contingent that may still number in the thousands—and where Ukrainian forces have begun a withdrawal.

The mid-winter battle in Debaltseve has been desperate and intensive (as shown in this brief clip of raw video by RFE-RL), much like last month’s bloody brawl in which the Russians and their proxy forces wrested control of the airport in Donetsk.

With Russia in a strong position to force the evacuation or destruction of that large Ukrainian force, last week’s “Minsk II” truce agreement has evolved badly for Ukraine—an outcome that seemed clear from the start, notes Atlantic Council analyst John Herbst. The United States and Europe—notably France and Germany, which negotiated the current agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin—must sustain pressure on him by making clear that “the landing of each Russian shell on Ukrainian heads” will prolong the sanctions that are crimping Russia’s economy, Herbst writes. The Russian forces in southeastern Ukraine are led and armed by Russian troops directly, with thousands of Russian veterans, active-duty soldiers and paramilitaries fighting as paid ‘volunteers’ (as they are described in Russian news media) forming a large bulk of their ranks, along with locally recruited fighters.

It has been nine days since US President Barack Obama said he would delay any decision to send weapons to Ukraine, this to allow the German-French peace initiative to evolve. Now the United States and its allies should “agree on the best way to provide Kyiv with substantial weapons and training,” writes Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Sabine Freizer. “The aim should be to prepare Ukraine for the long haul, giving it the capacities to be a more formidable opponent of Russian invasion” over the coming years, she writes. (See Herbst’s and Freizer’s analyses, below.)

Despite the heavy fighting at Debaltseve, the cease-fire may survive for a time, Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Adrian Karatnycky writes, because “Poroshenko needs it and Putin wants it.” After obtaining control of Debaltseve, with its strategic rail and road hub between the larger Russian-held cities of Lugansk and Donetsk, Putin may let the fighting stop “because he wrongly thinks he can exert pressure for the lifting of sanctions and because he worries about” provoking a US decision to supply weapons to Ukraine. Still, Karatnycky says, the truce will “contain many perils for Ukraine and may break down later.”

John Herbst: Germany, France, US Should Increase Pressure

Herbst writes: “By any objective standpoint, the ceasefire already has failed.  In a sense, this happened at signature, when France, Germany and Ukraine accepted the change proposed by Russia and the separatists that the actual cessation of fighting would take effect only two-and-a-half days after signature.  All understood that the separatists, with plenty of Russian military equipment, would use that period to try to capture Debaltseve, which is precisely what happened.  When the Kremlin’s proxies failed to grab the town by the start of the ceasefire, they announced unilaterally that the ceasefire does not apply to the Debaltseve region.  Only a master of irony—or a thug—would declare that a ceasefire does not apply to the one region where most of the fighting was taking place.  But these masters of irony were not joking.  Since the ceasefire allegedly went into effect, they have been directing their sophisticated Russian armor, artillery and missiles at Debaltseve and, for good measure, Mariupol. 

“Of course, if the parties to the agreement so ardently want a “ceasefire” that they are unwilling to note that there is a great deal of shooting going on—well, then the ‘ceasefire’ has held, sort of. So far, it appears that such a “ceasefire” is of no interest to President Poroshenko. His government has been pointing out the unpleasant fact that the separatists are lobbing Russian shells at Ukrainians around Debaltseve. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have been more cautious.  While they expressed skepticism at the signing that the ceasefire would not hold, all the shooting in Debaltseve over the past three days has prompted only their ‘concern.’

“If France and Germany find it impossible to call separatist military action a violation of Minsk II, there is no hope that the ceasefire will hold. President Putin’s objective is to destabilize Ukraine, and he can do that only by regularly putting new pressure on Kyiv. And since no one has told Mr. Putin that there is no military solution to the Ukrainian crisis, he will continue to use his most reliable instrument, his proxies in Ukraine led and armed by the Kremlin, to achieve his objectives.

“If however, France and Germany are willing to call a spade a spade, and make clear that sanctions relief for Mr. Putin’s battered economy recedes further into the background with the landing of each Russian shell on Ukrainian heads, Mr. Putin might have to think twice as to how he puts pressure on Ukraine.  Germany and France would find this easier to do if the United States devoted more of its attention and intelligence resources to the rogue nuclear power that is currently tearing up the map of Europe and the hard-won peace that followed the Cold War.”

Sabine Freizer: US and EU Should Offer New Ukraine Support, Including Arms

Freizer writes: “The violent fall of Debaltseve is a terrible tragedy, with as many as an estimated 5,000 civilians and military still in the pocket, and many likely to perish in the continued fight.

“Already last week, during the Minsk talks, it was quite clear from local news accounts and social media that the town was being surrounded by Russian and Russian-backed forces and soon would fall. President Putin demanded that Debaltseve be considered under ‘separatist’ control. President Poroshenko refused, unwilling to pay the political price for surrendering the town. Instead, less than a week later, Ukrainian soldiers are being forced to surrender in the field what Poroshenko would not surrender at the negotiating table. It is not clear what Ukraine has gained from this maneuver besides more clear evidence that Russia is sending high-performance weapons and fighters to defeat the Ukrainians.

“Ukraine now needs time: to regroup, gain more weapons, train its forces, secure stronger command and control, and beef up its intelligence capacities. The IMF pledged another $17 billion last week but Ukraine needs this money quickly if it is to pursue urgent reforms and avoid default.

“Time is not in Russia’s favor as its economy continues to move into a recession, driven by sanctions and the declining oil price. The Russian population, now caught up in the euphoria of winning battles, is likely in several months to start to re-focus on domestic economic challenges.

“Time is also useful for the European Union and the United States to coordinate stronger restrictive measures against Russia, provide more funds to Ukraine, and agree on the best way to provide Kyiv with substantial weapons and training.

“For Ukraine, the EU, and the United States, the best way to buy time is to ensure the Minsk II ceasefire holds despite the loss of Debaltseve. The ceasefire should freeze the current battle lines but, as indicated in Minsk II, the OSCE should be able to patrol across all Lugansk and Donetsk territory. Withdrawal, cantonment of forces and monitoring should move forward. The West should press Russia to let the OSCE extend its monitoring of the Russia-Ukraine border much beyond the two crossing points it currently observes. The remaining parts of the agreement should be gradually implemented.

“The aim now should be to stop Russia’s advance and avoid an all-out battle for Mariupol, a strategic port of half a million on the Azov Sea. Debaltseve may have served as test case for Russia which was previously not used to taking over larger civilian population centers by military force. But the fight for Mariupol also poses much greater challenges for Russia than those towns taken before. President Putin may calculate that these risks are too great today.

“Given the impossibility of creating overnight a Ukrainian force that can defeat Russia’s invasion, the aim should be to prepare Ukraine for the long haul, giving it the capacities to be a more formidable Russian opponent in a few years. Unfortunately despite all the desperate hand-wringing, Kyiv clearly lacks this capacity now.”

John Herbst served as US ambassador to Ukraine in 2003-2006. Sabine Freizer, a career Europe and Eurasia specialist based in Istanbul, serves as an adviser to the Open Society Foundations in Ukraine.

Related Experts: Adrian Karatnycky, John E. Herbst, and Sabine Freizer

Image: A Ukrainian armored vehicle maneuvers amid blowing snow and shattered buildings during the battle around Debaltseve. (RFE-RL video/