Debaltseve debacle puts Ukraine’s leader in jeopardy. That suits Vladimir Putin just fine.

February 19, 2015
Ukrainian servicemen who fought in Debaltseve are seen in a bus before leaving for home, near Artemivsk

Ukrainian servicemen who fought in Debaltseve are seen in a bus before leaving for home, near Artemivsk, Feb. 19, 2015. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has suffered another crushing defeat. Less than a week after negotiating the renewal of the so-called Minsk ceasefire agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his soldiers have come limping out of Debaltseve, a road and rail hub in eastern Ukraine that pro-Russian rebels were besieging even as the talks dragged through the night.

Not only does the fierce fighting cast doubt on the chance for a lasting truce, but it puts the Ukrainian president in an increasingly difficult position domestically. As Ukrainians mark the first anniversary of the bloody Maidan protest and former President Viktor Yanukovych’s disgraceful flight from power, many are asking themselves what has been achieved. Crimea has been lost, the economy is cratering, and more than 5,000 people have been killed in a war with murky origins and little purpose.

Accounts coming from Debaltseve this week couldn’t have been more disparate. Poroshenko, who traveled to the war zone, insisted until the bitter end that Debaltseve hadn’t been encircled, even though soldiers and journalists were reporting that the town’s last supply route had been turned into a gauntlet of withering enemy fire. On Wednesday, Poroshenko said that 80 percent of the Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve — or almost 2,500 men by the end of the day — had withdrawn, with six killed and more than 100 wounded. Earlier news reports said that as many as 8,000 Ukrainian soldiers were holed up in the city.

“The town has practically been turned into ruins,” Ilya Kiva, the pro-Kiev deputy police chief of Donetsk region, told Ukrainskaya Pravda. On Wednesday, Ukrainian media reported that dozens of dead soldiers were being brought to the morgue in nearby Artemivsk. Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the Donetsk rebels, said on Thursday that more than 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed. Zakharchenko himself had been injured in the leg in Debaltseve and spoke to Russian media from his hospital bed.

While both sides exaggerate casualty numbers to their benefit, conflicting information on the order of magnitude is feeding Ukrainians’ frustration with their government. In Minsk, Poroshenko got the rebels to sign a peace deal only by dropping his demand for an immediate truce and delaying the ceasefire by almost three days, according to a reconstruction of the summit in Germany’s Bild newspaper. In the meantime, the pro-Russian separatists tightened the noose around Debaltseve.

Putin couldn’t help but gloat even before the retreat. “Of course losing is always bad, and it’s unfortunate for the losing side, especially if you lose to a former miner or tractor driver,” the Russian president told journalists on Tuesday. “But that’s life, and it will keep going. I don’t think it’s necessary to get too caught up by it.” (Incidentally, when asked about possible U.S. arms shipments to Ukraine, Putin said that according to his information, the United States is already delivering weapons — and there’s “nothing unusual” about it.)

The loss of Debaltseve is so huge only because Kiev turned it into a symbolic redoubt, said Gustav Gressel, a specialist on Eastern European defense policy and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. Poroshenko’s biggest mistake was not to withdraw earlier, according to Gressel. The battle for Debaltseve is reminiscent of the futile struggle for the Donetsk airport, which Ukrainian forces finally gave up in January after months of bitter fighting.

“It wasn’t worth the effort. The strategic value was in no way proportional to the troops put there,” Gressel said. If Ukraine is going to lead a war of attrition against a far superior enemy, he said, it must fight tactically, avoiding vulnerable “bulges” like the Debaltseve pocket and raising the costs for Russia’s covert war.

What’s remarkable about Debaltseve is that until very recently, it was the site of a joint staff of Russian and Ukrainian military officers tasked with monitoring the original Minsk cease-fire signed in September. Then, suddenly, a month ago, the participating Russian general refused to show up, foreshadowing an offensive by the separatists, The Wall Street Journal reported at the time.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Russian defense analyst, believes that if the attack on Debaltseve has any strategic component, it’s part of a bigger plan to destabilize and overthrow Poroshenko. “The Russian government aims to publicly humiliate the Ukrainian military and stir up the political situation in Kiev, followed by regime change in one way or the other,” Felgenhauer wrote. Ultimately, Putin is interested in a pliant Ukrainian government that will not seek membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, he said.

On Monday, the Kremlin’s German propaganda arm, RT Deutsch, spread an unsubstantiated rumor that Poroshenko’s family had fled Kiev after the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector threatened consequences because of the looming disaster in Debaltseve. The only thing that the report got right was that anger is rising against the country’s hapless, secretive military leadership.

Following the retreat, Semyon Semyenchenko, commander of the volunteer Donbass Battalion, posted on his Facebook page that Poroshenko was a victim of a small clique that was lying to him about the number of killed and wounded in an effort to cover up its own failures and retain influence. Semyenchenko, who was elected to the Ukrainian parliament in October, asked Poroshenko for an urgent meeting — incongruously adding a smiley to his request.

Almost in passing, Semyenchenko informed Poroshenko that 17 volunteer battalions had formed a “joint staff” to coordinate their actions and “help one another, including you.”

Last summer, Semyenchenko led a social media campaign attacking the military leadership for its handling of the situation at Ilovaisk, a rail junction where Ukrainian fighters had become trapped by pro-Russian forces. The bloodbath that ensued forced Poroshenko to sue for peace in the first Minsk ceasefire accord.

The renewed Minsk agreement isn’t dead yet, but it’s not looking good. If another government-held city falls, say the port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, Poroshenko will have to be just as concerned about the home front as about the front line.

22 comments

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utterly pointless war both sides have picked up and wont let go, they are gonna kill another few thousand and eventually tire themselves off….

in all fairness, while putin is not sinless here, the so-called “volunteer battalions” started this conflict last February.

Posted by yobro_yobro88 | Report as abusive

Combine the scheming of the hapless Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, with that of the USA., and what do you get, …a disaster! I always used to laugh when I heard the Mullahs in Iran describe the USA., as ‘the Great Satin’ but on reflection they got the description spot on!

Posted by Thefont | Report as abusive

Posted by yobro_yobro88

Agreed bro

Posted by notlurking | Report as abusive

Just as a “computer game general” from a safe distance, and chess player, one can ponder if Russian strategy is limited to “partitioning” Ukraine to create a “Donbass Republic” “satellite” similar to Belarus, which is partly the defacto situation now. But the Azov coast to Crimea, including Mariupol still to go.
Winning by the separatists seems to just need encirclement and siege, until the Kiev forces have run down their ammunition, equipment and fuel, and attrition by artillery, until they are ready to use the escape corridor.
The rest of Ukraine would join Greece as a European “social welfare” case, selling state assets and producing food and cheap labor, for handouts by the bankers.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

When will the defense executives and the political war-hawks come to learn a lesson that minding our business for a change, will serve our interests better for the security of the people and the nation, for the long term?

In the name of democracy or other – regime change in Iraq not only resulted in over quarter-million deaths but most importantly, created a power vacuum by removing the one that knew how to contain the vicious local forces and the effects of this uncontainable power-vacuum, that’ll come around to haunt us for quite some time including in the current spin off form that we see.

In the name of trade and economy, the regime change in Ukraine not only resulted in terrible loss of land, life, ruined relations with a nuclear might that’ll take decades to rebuild.

The calamity brought by these war-hawks from both defense and defense driven lobby-driven political-actors, demonstrate their utter incompetence in bringing anything meaningful at global/local level other than pilfering US tax payer dollars and bringing harm closer to home.

These folks that have gone mental and wild on defense-prowess and spending at over $600B/year, need be held accountable to bring meaningful value at local level.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

“Victor Yanukovych’s disgraceful flight from power”?

I seem to remember that he had to flee from his office to avoid violent protesters who had broken in. Is Reuters rewriting history now to fit the preferred narrative?

Posted by Nickcw | Report as abusive

1. Ukrainian President Poroshenko is a former chocolate magnate who has been in the office for nine months. Russian President Putin is a former KGB Lieutenant Colonel who has been in the office for 15 years.
2. Ukraine gave up all its nuclear arsenal (some say third in the world at the time!) in exchange for this: “The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the CSCE Final Act, to respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.” (“Ukraine. Memorandum on Security Assurances.” Wikipedia)
3. So here begs the question: why ALL the guarantors-signatories practically betrayed Ukraine and what country will now believe in such “guarantees”?

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Poroshenko needs a good community organizer, lol.

Posted by smokeymtnblues | Report as abusive

Let’s be honest. Kiev regime military power of any meaning is based on so called “volunteer” batallions made of ultranationalist extremists, fanatics and criminal elements (special amnesty was granted for criminals who declare to join). The rest is mobilized force which are people who are not in any mood to fight and just want to save their skins. They were big supporters of Maidan movement which cheated them into belief of good life coming soon. Instead they now face death on the front in the name of ethnic conflict inflicted by people which took power and entangled them in the geopolitical game of US containment of Russia. One can thus expect huge backlash against the present regime.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

Know the reality and what’s behind this war:

http://one-just-world.blogspot.com/2015/ 01/the-ukrainian-revolution-of-dignity-a nd.html
http://one-just-world.blogspot.com/2015/ 02/what-is-really-at-stake-in-novorossiy a.html

Posted by Veracitie | Report as abusive

Without the massive support of Russia in terms of advanced hardware, specialist forces on the ground and money the rebels would have vanished from the face of the earth a long time ago. Putin will continue to destabilize Ukraine for a long time top come. He thinks of Ukraine as an oblast of Russia.

Posted by al43 | Report as abusive

We are witnessing the slow motion crushing of Ukraine by Russia.

This is Ukraine’s hour of need and what has the West chosen to do? Look the other way.

Posted by havryliv | Report as abusive

We are witnessing the slow motion crushing of Ukraine by Russia.

This is Ukraine’s hour of need and what has the West chosen to do? Look the other way.

Posted by havryliv | Report as abusive

Poroshenko claims 15 casualties, a few dozen injuries in orderly retreat from Debaltseve and have made both a stupid tactical political and military mistake.

Those defending eastern Ukraine have announced in a humanitarian gesture that the wives and mothers of the 3040 Kiev soldiers killed in the Debaltseve rout, the grieving women can now claim there loved ones bodies.
These wildly differing accounts will be reconciled in the next few days as independent journalists bring out the real story of what happened in Debaltseve.

Poroshenko might have just shot off both feet and brought further credibility scrutiny on the US – Ms Nuland’s humanitarian $5 billion efforts to bring democracy to those 3000 mothers. Her next cookie hand out photo op in Kiev might not go as smoothly as the last one. A regular run of the mill angry mother is one thing, an angry Ukrainian mother is quite another (akin to a mother bear protecting bear protecting cubs)…. 3000 grieving lost sons…… oh boy oh boy….there is going to be hell to pay here.

Posted by Martin2013 | Report as abusive

This sounds an awful lot like blaming the victim. Given the fact that Russia is behind this with men and tanks and other weapons, shouldn’t the focus be on that rather than the shortcomings of the Ukrainian leadership?

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

One can not run on the back of others,he/she must have own strenth in his/her legs.Poshenko has failed to understand this simple fact and became a toy in hands of others.He did not weigh consequences in the current time of the war weary world,nor he weighed interest of his country compared to other countries.He lacked knowledge of history,recent history as to what happened in Libya,Iraq and Syria.Nor he proved good businessman to compare various opportunities Ukraine had by sharing business 50:50 with both EU and Russia instead of allying with one totally.With help from Germany at least he could get gas from russia,otherwise one could not imagine condition of Ukraine people during severe season of snowy winter.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

@wirk is right. Tragic…the people of Ukraine are just pawns

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

Putler has his own agenda, and the dithering of European leaders to try and show how they can solve issues ‘diplomatically’ will simply contribute to more Ukrainian deaths at Russian hands.

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

The Novorussian forces hold Debaltseve and have offered to give the, about 3500 dead, back to their families for burial.

That will be interesting to watch spin.

Posted by PenGun | Report as abusive

I’d have to check with you here. Which is not something I usually do! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

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Posted by Web hosting | Report as abusive