Putin in driving seat as Ukraine erupts
FIGHTING raged in eastern Ukraine yesterday despite European efforts to resurrect a stillborn ceasefire, a day after pro-Russian separatists who spurned the truce forced thousands of government troops out of a strategic town.
Western nations have refused to give up on a peace deal negotiated last week even though rebels disavowed it to seize the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve.
Thousands of besieged Ukrainian troops pulled out of the town on Wednesday in one of the worst defeats for the Kiev government of a 10-month war that has killed more than 5 000 people.
European and US officials have expressed the hope that the ceasefire can now take effect, with rebels who are fighting for territory the Kremlin calls “New Russia” halting their advance having achieved their main objective in Debaltseve.
But artillery was still raining down near Debaltseve yesterday, and the Ukrainian military said its troops had come under fire elsewhere.
Journalists in Vuhlehirsk, a rebel-held town near Debaltseve, said artillery was still thundering down in the area.
In Artemivsk, a government-held town north of Debaltseve, Ukrainian troops spoke of their flight under gunfire as they withdrew from the besieged town on Wednesday.
“Wherever there were trees they fired at us with machine guns and grenade launchers. They used everything,” Vadim, a soldier from Ukraine’s 30th brigade, said.
Military officials said rebels had launched mortar attacks on government-held positions further south, near the coastal city of Mariupol, and were building up forces there.
Mariupol is the biggest government-held city in the two rebellious provinces, and Kiev fears rebels will try to capture it.
Western countries say Russia is behind the rebel advance, having deployed thousands of troops with advanced weaponry into eastern Ukraine to fight on the separatists’ behalf.
The attack on Debaltseve by rebels loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin amounts to a test of the West’s resolve to stand up to him – at the risk of an escalation of the conflict.
Allowing the rebels to capture the rail hub without a strong response to what the West calls a clear violation of the peace deal could look like appeasement of Putin.
But declaring the agreement dead would be likely to force Europe to impose new economic sanctions on Russia and increase pressure on US President Barack Obama to give Kiev lethal weapons, a move that might intensify the fighting.
Putin’s readiness to take big gambles, and to use the military option, puts him in the driving seat.