The latest peace plan never had much chance. Shortly after signing it in Minsk, rebel leaders declared that Debaltseve, where several thousand Ukrainian troops were located, fell outside its terms. After the “ceasefire” started on February 15th, they continued their assault. By February 18th the flag of Novorossiya, the rebels’ pseudo-state, had been raised over the city centre. “It’s always tough to lose,” quipped Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, ordered a risky retreat and tried to paint the defeat as a victory, saying his troops’ swift escape had put Russia “to shame”.
Such spin fell on deaf ears inside Ukraine. Photos of muddied troops who had fled on foot belied claims of an “organised” operation. Soldiers told of a night-time journey across frozen fields, punctuated by ambushes and casualties. The Ukrainian government claims regular Russian troops backed the rebels. Douglas Lute, America’s ambassador to NATO, says that teams of specialised Russians, mostly Spetsnaz elite troops, are operating command-and-control systems and the most sophisticated weapons. These troops form “a sort of parallel command structure answerable to Moscow,” he says.
Mr Poroshenko claimed 80% of his forces in Debaltseve had already got out, and that only six men were killed in the retreat. Reports from the ground put the number higher. The morgue director in Artemovsk says he took in 13 bodies on the day of the retreat. The fall of Debaltseve was not evidence of Russian superiority, says Semyon Semyonchenko, a battalion commander, but of the Ukrainian army leaders’ “gross incompetence”.
Despite being surrounded on three sides since last autumn, Ukrainian troops were ordered to remain in Debaltseve. An offensive to straighten out the lines could have derailed the peace talks. For Kiev, a retreat risked a popular backlash. Ultimately, the decision to try to hold the territory was political, says one Ukrainian official. “From a military point of view, we should have retreated a month ago.”