Putin's Staying Put (for Now)
At first glance, the pro-Russian rebels' takeover of the railroad hub of Debaltseve today seems like a blatant violation of the cease-fire agreement reached last week in Minsk. Yet Ukrainian troops' orderly retreat from Debaltseve was the best possible outcome -- and not just for the troops themselves. It's a clear sign that Russian President Vladimir Putin, rather than sending his proxies or his soldiers to advance any further into Ukraine, prefers to freeze the conflict.
Only yesterday, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation and groups of volunteers couldn't even access Debaltseve, which had been turned into a ghost town by fighting. Thousands of outmatched Ukrainian servicemen were surrounded there by rebel forces, facing constant skirmishes and heavy shelling. The situation seemed dire. Only a few dozen Ukrainian soldiers managed to break free every day, mainly by driving across frozen fields under artillery fire.
Earlier this week, on a visit to Budapest with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Putin taunted his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko: "Of course, losing is never nice, of course, it's always tough on the loser, especially when you're losing to erstwhile miners or tractor drivers. But life is life, it will definitely go on. I wouldn't get hung up about it."
That prompted Pavel Felgengauer, a Putin critic and Russian military expert, to write that Putin's goal at Debaltseve was to humiliate the Ukrainians, force them to surrender and send them home in disgrace "to cause a political reaction in Ukraine: anger and subsequent destabilization. Moscow is dreaming of a Kiev coup d'etat."
This morning, however, Anastasia Stanko, a reporter from Kiev's Hromadske TV reported that the Ukrainian forces were leaving town on their own volition. Her photographs (at the bottom of this news story) showed soldiers walking or riding calmly along otherwise deserted roads on a sunny, crisp day. They seemed to be making an honorable, organized retreat.
Poroshenko, who had never admitted the troops had been encircled, made a triumphant statement about the withdrawal. "We were asserting and proved: Debaltseve was under our control," said the English-language version of the speech published on Poroshenko's website. "There was no encirclement, and our troops left the area in a planned and organized manner with all the heavy weaponry: tanks, APCs, self-propelled artillery and vehicles."
"I would like to say that Russia, which yesterday required the Ukrainian warriors to lay down arms, raise the white flag and surrender, was put to shame by the given actions," Poroshenko added.
It's hard to see, however, how Russia could be "put to shame" by its proxies' major military victory, which allows them to reestablish a railroad connection between their two biggest cities, Donetsk and Luhansk. The Ukrainian troops left because they could no longer hold Debaltseve, not because they suddenly got bored.
The manner in which the Ukrainians retreated, however, does say something about Putin's goals. The separatists had indeed been insisting that the Ukrainian troops should surrender and withdraw unarmed. Putin, by contrast, played the humanist. "Our common goal is to save the lives of people who found themselves encircled," he said in Budapest. "Then we can carry out the full plan agreed in Minsk. I am sure that can be done."
It would be a mistake to ever accept anything Putin says about Ukraine at face value. He has lied about the degree of Russian involvement throughout the conflict, and his versions of events on the ground have rarely agreed with impartial reports. And the rebels didn't exactly allow the Ukrainians to leave at a leisurely pace: the retreating columns faced shelling along the way.
Still, the Russian proxies were content to take Debaltseve itself: They showed little interest in pursuing and massacring its former defenders. In all, it suggests that once a new separation line is established -- and Poroshenko did say Ukraine was "holding the new defense lines" -- the cease-fire agreed to last week may finally stick. OSCE observers have confirmed that fighting had largely stopped everywhere else along the separation line.
Putin isn't aiming for the most humiliating scenario in eastern Ukraine. Nor does he appear poised for a further military push, at least right now. Instead, he is holding a series of meetings with his European allies or near-allies. He has already met with Orban and confirmed plans for Russia to expand a major nuclear power plant in Hungary. On Feb. 25, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, another leader unhappy with Europe's sanctions against Russia, will visit Moscow. Putin has also invited Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to visit him in Russia. (Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias has already stopped by to pave the way.)
It seems that Putin's focus has shifted toward re-establishing ties with the European Union. That will be a tougher battle than the one for Debaltseve. Poroshenko has been demanding "a firm reaction from the world to Russia's brutal violations of the Minsk agreements," and some European officials have been willing to oblige. Federica Mogherini, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, has condemned the separatist takeover in Debaltseve as a "clear violation of the cease-fire," and so has Steffen Siebert, spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (The German leader has been on the phone daily with Putin and Poroshenko to defuse the Debaltseve crisis, and although she must see the Ukrainian retreat as a blessing, it shouldn't be a surprise that she won't say so publicly. With Putin's intentions so hard to read, she still has to focus on trying to contain him and on mollifying the United States, where some are still calling for arming Ukraine.)
It's a volatile situation, but I expect the tensions to subside in the coming weeks. The Minsk agreement contains enough contradictions for Putin to reignite the conflict, should he so desire. But for now, he appears to want breathing space so he can try to convince the West to east its economic pressure on Russia.
Ukraine, for its part, should use the coming lull in the conflict to speed up its economic reforms. Poroshenko is running out of time on this front: even before the country's most recent military failures, Ukrainians were increasingly unhappy with galloping inflation and unrepentant official corruption. Semen Semenchenko, the Ukrainian legislator and field commander whose unit fought at Debaltseve, railed against the Kiev military leadership on Facebook: "We had enough strength and materiel. The problem is with the command, the coordination of action." He added that Ukrainian volunteer fighters had been paying with their lives for the "lies" of top brass trying to gloss over the military situation.
Even if Putin is hoping for a coup in Kiev, Poroshenko can frustrate him by showing Ukrainians their country is making progress on its path toward Europe. With financial assistance about to arrive from the International Monetary Fund, the embattled Ukrainian leader may have just enough space to make some quick reforms to regain his voters' trust.
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