Debaltseve debacle

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Developments in Ukraine in the past few days merit serious scrutiny. Moreover, news that Russian bombers were dispatched to Britain’s airspace broke even as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko led the Maidan memorial ceremony, the first anniversary of the 20 February 2014 anti-Viktor Yanukovych revolt, the so-called “EuroMaidan revolution” that claimed the lives of more than 100 people who were killed in the violence that swept over Kiev’s central Independence Square. The celebrations took place even as Ukrainian troops fled the strategic town and transport hub of Debaltseve and as pro-Russian insurrectionists appeared to be moving on the Black Sea port of Mariupol.

A chilling reminder of the menacing power of Germany’s Second World War Luftwaffe, Russian warplanes capable of carrying nuclear weapons were intercepted by the UK’s Royal Air Force, but the implication of the incident could not be underrated. Russia is a force to be reckoned with.

In short, Western sanctions against Russia are certainly no deterrent to Russian geopolitical ambitions. There is nothing that Western powers can do as Russia now seems unstoppable. The Ukrainian capital, Kiev, marked the first anniversary of the EuroMaidan revolution in a low key, sullen and sombre ceremony. Western powers had virtually abandoned Ukraine. The triumphant Russian speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine had made impressive military gains in recent days, making a mockery of the Minsk agreement.

Poroshenko blamed a top Kremlin aide, Vladislav Surkov, for directing and organising snipers on that fateful day. Ukrainian officials admitted that pro-Russian insurrectionists had stormed Debaltseve. Poroshenko gave the order to Ukrainian forces to withdraw from the strategic rail junction, a crucial corridor to the heartlands of eastern Ukraine, effectively separating the Russian speaking regions of Luhansk and the Donetsk People’s Republic.

In the dead of the night, an unprecedented exchange of prisoners of war between Russian speaking insurrectionists in eastern Ukraine and pro-Western Ukrainian troops took place. This perhaps is the only stipulation of the Minsk Agreement that was actually fulfilled.

Anti-Western sentiment in Russia is on the rise. Meanwhile, tens of thousands gathered in central Moscow on Saturday to demonstrate against what they described as the “fascist coup” on the anniversary of the so-called Maidan revolution that toppled the government of pro-Russia president Yanukovych. As such, the Kremlin continues to condemn the 22 February uprising as a neo-Nazi inspired coup.

There was some trepidation in Lvov, the ancient Leopolis, also known as the “City of the Lion”, ironically in western Ukraine and presumed to be a stronghold of the pro-West Poroshenko. Instead, residents hurled insults at the Ukrainian president during a visit and refused to shake hands with him, explaining that life was far better under pro-Kremlin Yanukovych.

Celebrations in Kiev to the strains of Mozart’s Requiem by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine ensued even as Poroshenko conceded the “planned and organised” departure of Ukrainian troops from Debaltseve.

Mariupol is next. It is now clear that the Russian speaking insurrectionists intend to control the corridor from eastern Ukraine to the Crimean Peninsula, effectively part of the Russian Federation, by taking the strategic Black Sea port city of Mariupol.

It is becoming ever more evident that Ukraine is losing a war that has killed more than 5,600 people and displaced more than a million according to the United Nations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that the meeting in Minsk was a fiasco. Merkel described the  overrunning of Debaltseve as a “cynical attack” on the truce brokered in Minsk last week. The European Union and NATO had failed to bolster the military capacity of Ukraine.

Western powers were incapable of taking a bolder step by arming Kiev. A British House of Lords committee claimed that the EU “sleepwalked” into the Ukrainian quagmire.

A former top British NATO commander warned that British Prime Minister David Cameron had become a “diplomatic irrelevance.” The committee chairman, Lord Tugendhat lamented the “lack of robust analytic capacity” and a catastrophic misreading of the mood in Russia and eastern Ukraine. The same can be said of the European Union.

Even as the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany met in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in a desperate attempt to end the Ukrainian crisis, the fighting in eastern Ukraine was raging, and quickly escalating. It is a question of identity.

Identity politics is all the rage, in Europe as in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, economics is also a part of the picture. Both the Russian and Ukrainian economies are currently facing serious problems. The plummeting in the price of hydrocarbons is exacerbating the economic crisis in Russia. Nevertheless, the situation in Ukraine is far worse.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, too, warned of the dire consequences of the latest military successes of the Russian speaking insurrectionists in eastern Ukraine.

The Minsk agreement brokered in a marathon 16-hour meeting is now meaningless. There is even talk of a return of ousted pro-Russian Ukrainian president Yanukovych from exile.

Poroshenko is a disappointment to his people and the so-called Chocolate tycoon was expected to give easy money to profligate politicians. He proved to be an unsatisfactory solution to Kiev’s crisis.

The underlying assumption by Proshenko and his pro-West Ukrainian supporters that Western powers will come to Ukraine’s rescue has left the country in a mess. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was supposed “to monitor the situation on the ground” in Debaltseve. The ceasefire that ostensibly went into effect over the weekend, last Sunday to be precise, is null and void. The West underestimated Russia’s hostility to the eastern expansion of NATO.

Pro-Russian insurgents argued that their offensive in Mariupol and Debaltseve did not violate the Minsk agreement.

The West’s leaders admitted that there were “serious problems with the ceasefire.” Still, they went ahead. Worse, there are signs that several eastern European leaders now regard Russian President Vladimir Putin with much admiration.

Putin visited Hungary on Tuesday. He held compelling talks with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The symbolic significance of the talks must not be discounted or underestimated. The Hungarian prime minister conceded last year that his intention is to construct an “illiberal new state” in Hungary. What “illiberal” means in this context is open to question. The Kremlin is regaining its former prestige in the countries that once flourished within the Soviet orbit.

The Hungarian premier agreed with Putin that arming Ukraine will only intensify the crisis of confidence between Russia and the West. Putin told reporters in Hungary that there was “unquestionable potential for increasing cooperation in the economic sphere” between Hungary and Russia. “We value our reputation as a reliable supplier of resources to Europe and Hungary,” Putin extrapolated.

Orban, who took office after a landslide victory in Hungary’s 2010 general elections, understands that NATO expansion eastwards threatens Russia’s security and that the Kremlin cannot back down on questions it perceives as a national priority. Russian Minister of the Economy Alexei Ulyukaev was in Hungary too, signalling the Hungarian determination to bolster economic ties with Russia.

The Russian rapprochement with Hungary, just like the routing of Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukrain by Russian speaking separatists, demonstrates beyond doubt that political loyalties in post-Cold War Europe are not determined by stunning detail in the small print of agreements such as the one formed in Minsk.

Gamal Nkrumah is a Cairo-based African and international affairs expert.