Between a cauldron and a hard place.

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Ukraine's President Is Trapped With His Troops

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Two days after the belligerent parties in eastern Ukraine were supposed to suspend fighting, the truce is not holding. The agreement sealed last Thursday has hit the first of several predictable snags: Kiev refuses to recognize that a large number of its troops are encircled near the railroad junction of Debaltseve, and fighting rages on as these troops try to break out. Although both sides are guilty of violating the cease-fire, responsibility for preserving it is now in the hands of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Between Saturday and Sunday, the residents of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine's biggest city, now held by the pro-Russian rebels, experienced their first quiet night in months. It looked as though the fragile cease-fire was for real -- until reports started coming in from Debaltseve. Here's one from photographer Max Avdeev, who was in the area:

In another post, Avdeev wrote that several thousand Ukrainian soldiers were surrounded at Debaltseve. "Experts who seriously discuss a cease-fire and all sorts of political factors deserve a good kick," he added. "There's no politics there, just lots of fighting men who are mad and who don't want to stop."

He's probably wrong about that, though: A lot of this is about politics. There are plenty of authoritative Western press reports (here's one from The New York Times and one from The Wall Street Journal), as well as Ukrainian reports citing military sources in the area, confirming that a sizable Ukrainian contingent -- up to 8,000 troops -- has been encircled by separatist forces. (To use military parlance, Ukraine's forces were originally positioned as a salient -- a fragile extension into rebel territory -- but now they are completely surrounded, forced into what Russians call a kotyol, or cauldron.)

The pro-Russian rebels have been talking openly about the encirclement since last week, demanding the Ukrainian troops lay down their weapons and leave Debaltseve.  Yet official Kiev -- meaning Poroshenko and the military command -- have never admitted Ukrainian troops are trapped. Today, Kiev's defense ministry confirms street fighting in Debaltseve and says "bandits" now control part of the town. Yet it still stops short of an admission that thousands of its troops have been cut off. 

The matter came up during the cease-fire talks in Minsk, but Poroshenko adamantly denied the problem existed. Coming out of the marathon negotiations, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered military experts to figure out what was going on. Whatever they reported back, and whatever other orders Putin may have given, the Ukrainian troops clearly never ceased in their efforts to fight out of the "cauldron", and the rebels -- possibly aided by Russian soldiers -- remained similarly stubborn in keeping them sealed in.

Both sides have been acting in bad faith. The rebels and their Russian backers demanded an extra two days of fighting before the cease-fire, presumably so they could seal the encirclement, and they now consider the Debaltseve area their legitimate conquest to which the cease-fire terms must apply -- meaning Ukrainian forces must pull back to a mutually agreed upon separation line. Kiev, for its part, has been trying to wriggle out of an embarrassing military defeat that would have symbolic importance for the country's fiercely patriotic electorate. Poroshenko seems to be hoping that the cease-fire's European guarantors will intervene and force Putin to unblock Debaltseve.

So far, that hope has been futile. German Chancellor Angela Merkel talked to Putin and Poroshenko on Sunday and Monday, but they didn't come to any agreement on Debaltseve.

The most obvious way to save the cease-fire would be for Poroshenko to acknowledge the encirclement and save his troops from almost certain death by negotiating their safe passage. Russia and its proxies in the area have signaled that they are willing to stop the fighting once that happens: Things have been relatively peaceful along the rest of the separation line. Once the Debaltseve boil is lanced, the sides can execute the artillery pull-back outlined in the cease-fire agreement, originally scheduled to begin in the early morning hours of Wednesday, but now certain to be delayed. Though there are plenty of other traps in the Minsk agreement, there would be time to deal with them later.

The alternative is harrowing. The Ukrainian troops could keep fighting to get out of Debaltseve, but nothing short of direct intervention by NATO troops could save them from taking the heaviest casualties of the entire campaign. The cease-fire would be shattered, and it would either be renegotiated on even more favorable terms for Putin and the rebels, or the war would escalate with unpredictable consequences for both Russia and Ukraine.

Putin, who in his conversations with Merkel and Poroshenko still maintains the fiction that his country is not a party to the conflict, appears to be prepared for this scenario. With the military advantage on his side, he can afford to press ahead. That may change as the West decides on a response to further escalation, but with the situation on the ground changing hourly, that is not an immediate obstacle for the Russian leader.

Poroshenko's problem is that he cannot be sure Putin will stop even if the Ukrainian troops at Debaltseve surrender, rather than continue on to other strategic areas, including the port city of Mariupol. Then, Ukrainians would hold Poroshenko responsible for caving in and achieving nothing.

There is no good way out for the Ukrainian president. All he can do now is try to save his soldiers' lives and hope Putin is satisfied with winning one last military victory in his hybrid war before the conflict is effectively frozen until the end of this year. What happens next turns on whether the Ukrainian leader can stifle his pride and put his political support in jeopardy by taking a plunge into uncertainty.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net