The humiliating defeat of Ukrainian armed forces at Debaltseve, a strategic railway junction between the rebel cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the withdrawal of 2,500 troops from the town, marked another reverse for the Ukrainian army and for the prospects of peace in the eastern provinces.
Although the exact scale of the Ukrainian losses of men is contested (Ukraine concedes 179, rebels claim an improbable, 3,000), the images of bedraggled and demoralised men straggling back to the government-held town of Artemivsk contradicted the claims of Ukrainian President Pedro Poroshenko that: “Our troops and formations have left in an organised and planned manner.”
Ever since Ukrainian forces swept into the eastern provinces last summer, the separatist rebels, aided by military supplies, training, weapons, and support from President Putin’s Russia, have fought back. They seized the coastal city of Novoazovsk, fought a three-week battle to retain Ilovaisk, a township linking the Donetsk and Luhansk, and, after some of the heaviest fighting of the war, recaptured the hugely symbolic Donetsk International Airport.
The debacle at Debaltseve confirms that the tide has turned in the war, prompting Semyon Semenchenko, a battalion commander and Member of Parliament in Kiev, to declare that “we had enough forces and means” but that the problem is command and coordination. “They are as bad as can be.”
The military predicament of the Ukraine only replicates the dilemmas of European diplomacy. Minsk II, the plan of the German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande to restore the earlier ceasefire of the Minsk Protocol of September 2014 was sold to the other 26 EU leaders as a last chance to prevent the hostilities worsening.
Merkel was worried not only about the fighting in eastern Ukraine but also that the Obama administration might send anti-tank weapons, drones and radars to the Ukraine, an action, she feared, that would only worsen the situation. Hence France and Germany sought to broker another ceasefire.
Both Putin and Alexandr Zakharchenko, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said that the provisions of Minsk II could not apply to the encircled town of Debaltseve since it did not constitute an active front in the fighting. Poroshenko, desperate to see a security zone established, signed the agreement anyway.
Having exploited the weakness of the Ukraine, and the trans-Atlantic differences between Washington and Berlin, Vladimir Putin then chose a Nato capital, Budapest, from which to urge the Debaltseve defenders to surrender. “Of course, it is always painful to lose”, he said.
Putin is clearly pursuing a step-by-step strategy, seeking incremental gains while intimidating adversaries and exploiting divisions among them. He is employing an information war, clandestine operatives in government-controlled Ukraine, covert forces in rebel areas, and a proxy army that Russia can resupply and support.
The strategy reflects weaknesses as well as strengths, namely a plummeting rouble, stagnating oil prices and the effects of sanctions. Putin cannot afford a major trial of strength with the West but believes he can use this strategy, as in Georgia and the Crimea, to protect Russian-speaking peoples and restore Russian influence in parts of its “Near Abroad”.
For the Nato powers, this is a real test of their resolve and unity of purpose. If Sunday’s tank attacks on Ukrainian forces east of Mariupol precede an attempt to “liberate” this seaport on the route between Russia and the Crimea, the ceasefire will be over and the West will have to consider further sanctions and the rearming of the Ukrainian forces.
US vice-president Joe Biden has apparently assured Mr Poroshenko in a telephone call that “the costs to Russia of future violations of the Minsk agreements will rise”.
Even if the rebels pause to the east of Mariupol, and continue the prisoner exchange, Ukrainian armed forces are in a parlous position.
Observers of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe will supposedly monitor the mutual withdrawal of heavy weapons from the ceasefire line, but this looks like a very fragile agreement.
The rebels could exploit any breakdown of Minsk II and threaten Ukrainian positions in the centre or south while swinging north to take the huge power plant at Shchastya, or the towns of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
Given this range of high-value targets so close to the ceasefire line, the West might need a more robust response than merely sending defensive weapons or imposing further sanctions. Nato nations could consider sending a more dramatic signal to Putin by reversing recent defence cuts, not least those in Britain.
Edward M Spiers is Professor of Strategic Studies at the University of Leeds