Ukraine Tank

Photo: AP/Petr David Josek

Pro-Russian Rebels Ignore Ceasefire
| published February 19, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Ukraine’s ceasefire doesn’t much look like a ceasefire in the traditional sense. In fact, to most observers—experts and laypersons alike—the situation in the Ukraine looks like outright civil war, not truce.

Despite immense efforts to negotiate a truce—which would include the removal of all heavy weapons such as tanks, rocket launchers, artillery, and heavy vehicles—intense fighting is still taking place in a variety of locations in Eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian militants are battling Ukrainian troops loyal to Kiev for control of cities, towns, and key transportation hubs.

The strategically-important Ukrainian railway hub of Debaltseve fell to the rebels this week after a prolonged, round-the-clock battle for control of the city. Three weeks of intense, heavy artillery shelling and rocket fire finally drove the Ukrainian soldiers from the area as officials in Kiev acknowledged defeat. More than a thousand Ukrainian soldiers moved west along roads into neighboring towns, some in large trucks and personnel vehicles, others on foot. As of today, some 90% of the Ukrainian troops had been evacuated from the area around Debaltvese.

Russia television showed images of pro-Russian rebels happily raising the flag of Russia over some buildings, while some Ukrainian soldiers told reporters that they felt betrayed by the lack of support for their efforts to hold the town.

The militants have had little patience with the negotiations and previous discussions of a cease-fire, including those recently brokered by other European leaders. Even after this most recent truce was agreed upon by all the major parties, the rebels continued their onslaught in some areas of eastern Ukraine. The fighting around Debaltvese has been some of the most intense of the Ukrainian civil war, now one year old.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tried to put the best face on the defeat, explaining that the withdrawal was systematic and coordinated as a tactical move, the implicit message being that Ukrainian troops may return to Debaltvese in the near future.

“Debaltseve was under our control,” Poroshenko told reporters, “it was never encircled. Our troops and formations have left in an organized and planned manner.

But the United Nations and NATO commanders said that the rebel artillery onslaught and troop advances were clear violations of the recently-agreed-upon ceasefire. The NATO Secretary General called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene directly by ending support for the rebels and requesting that the militants withdraw. Putin, on the other hand, said openly that Debaltvese was already poised to fall into rebel hands anyway, with or without a cease fire. Putin said that the Ukrainian withdrawal was the only option available to either side under the circumstances.

More than 5000 people have died since the fighting began early last year, after unrest led to the overthrow of a pro-Russian president. Kiev has consistently accused Russia of interference in the civil war, which has already resulted in the annexation of the Crimea Region and heavy fighting across much of eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed militants oppose Kiev’s efforts to join either the European Union or NATO. Though Russian President Putin has repeatedly denied that Russian troops or equipment has been used in the fighting, NATO and other military analysts say that the evidence of Moscow’s intervention in the war is overwhelming.

Early Thursday, leaders of a half dozen countries convened a conference call to discuss the tattered condition of the truce and seek ways to bring at least a temporary end to the fighting. In some areas over the last four weeks, fighting has become so intense that many civilians have fled the area, moving by car, bus or on foot eastward and away from the violence. Even coastal areas along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov have seen heavy fighting and intense shelling and rocket-fire. In Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine, at least 40 civilians were killed during multiple rounds of artillery fire and rocket attacks.

Francois Hollande, President of France, demanded that the conditions of the ceasefire be implemented immediately and without exception or reinterpretation. During the conference call, Poroshenko urged the others to not turn a blind eye to what was happening in eastern Ukraine, where militants were exploiting the terms of the ceasefire to grab more land, seize strategically important sites, and consolidate control of territory.

Reporters near the town of Vuhlehirsk, not far from Debaltvese, said that artillery and rocket fire could be heard only a few miles away, and indication that the rebels were on the move and attempting to dislodge any Ukrainian troops in the path of their advance. Other journalists and humanitarian groups said there was heavy gunfire, shelling, and mortar rounds being fired in the area near Shyrokyne, also near the coast.

Although the matter is still being debated, legislators in Kiev may agree to allow President Poroshenko to officially request international troops from the United Nations to enter the country as peacekeepers. Putin and Russia’s U.N. ambassador both strongly criticized the notion of U.N. troops or an international contingent of ground forces, insisting that such a move would not only violate the terms of the truce, but also signal a provocative move by Ukraine to invite outside aggression into the region.

In Kiev, there is concern that if the pro-Russian rebels are allowed to gain a semi-permanent foothold, the militants will essentially form an independent state. Some rebel leaders are already calling the area under their control “the Donetsk Republic.”

Tensions in the Ukraine still pose a danger to other parts of Europe, and not just for economic reasons. For the second time in two months the British air force scrambled fighter jets to intercept and wave off Russian long-range bombers. On Thursday, according to British spokespersons, two heavy “Bear” Bombers entered civilian and commercial airspace over the English Channel, forcing civilian air traffic control authorities to temporarily reroute commercial flights, and triggering a swift response by the RAF, which sent multiple high-speed Typhoon fighter jets into action. The British jets escorted the Russian bombers out of U.K. airspace without incident. NATO has reported a sharp spike in such interactions all across Europe, and over the last three months there have been at least one dozen such close encounters with Russian aircraft. Western military analysts suggest that the multiple incidents are merely deliberate and systematic testing of NATO’s air defense systems by Russia, as well as a way for Putin to flex his muscle in the face of harsh sanctions by many EU countries. But some in the U.S. and the U.K. worry that each time Russia deliberately tests the resolve of NATO countries, it increases the chance that something could go wrong, or that a misjudgment or miscalculation could result in catastrophe.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops continue their slow retreat from some areas in eastern Ukraine as rebel forces intensify their onslaught, rendering Ukraine’s ceasefire a truce in name only.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Ukraine Violence Escalates; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; February 3, 2015.

Pro-Russian Militants Bombard Mariupol; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 25, 2015.