bne IntelliNews -
Russian-backed rebels in East Ukraine's Donbas region look set to take the town of Debaltseve despite a ceasefire agreement entering into force on February 15.
Debaltseve is a local road and rail hub that forms a Ukraine-held salient jutting into rebel-held territory, which rebels have fought to encircle since January. If Debaltseve falls to the Russian-backed rebels, the ceasefire agreement may become void, with Kyiv threatening to declare a state of war. Alternatively, the capture of the town may create the conditions for the ceasefire to take hold, say analysts, since there are no other immediate rebel goals.
The ceasefire scheduled for February 15 was part of the peace agreement for the conflict in Ukraine reached in Minsk on February 11 between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. Should fighting escalate again, the EU and US are likely to increase already painful sanctions imposed on Russia, while stepping up support for Ukraine.
Rebel leaders said on February 17 that they controlled 80% of the town, trapping around 5,000 Ukrainian troops in the city and taking dozens of prisoners. Russian state television reported over 70% of Ukrainian forces in the town having surrendered and ran footage of captured Ukrainian soldiers carrying their dead on stretchers.
Ukraine's military acknowledged on February 17 that there was now fighting throughout the town of 28,000, including around the railway station in the centre. Kyiv said government troops retained control over parts of the city. Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said five soldiers were killed on February 17.
Speaking at a press conference in Budapest, Putin called on Kyiv to now let Ukrainian forces surrender. "The problem of the encircled units needs to be put to an end. Our common task is to save human lives ... and not let this bruise aggravate ties between Kiev and the insurgents," he said. Putin said that rebels should give disarmed Ukrainian troops safe conduct out of the town.
Putin said the fighting in Debaltseve was "foreseeable skirmishes" and there had been otherwise a "significant reduction of hostilities", following the ceasefire signed on February 11, and entering into force on February 15. Putin called the rebels “miners and tractor drivers", despite numerous reports of Russian servicemen fighting in their ranks, partly confirmed by Western states.
Apart from the risk of increased Western sanctions against Russia, the fall of Debaltseve will add to pressure on Ukraine's military and political leadership over the conduct of the war. Kyiv has claimed for weeks that the situation at Debaltseve was under control, even as Ukrainian media reported the opposite.
On February 17, internet news site LB.ua quoted the deputy commander of Ukraine’s 40th battalion saying by phone that his troops were “sitting, watching, waiting for the battalion to be killed", with ammunition and food running out. Relatives of Ukrainian servicemen trapped in Debaltseve blocked an exit road from Kyiv on February 17 in protest at what they said was Kyiv's "abandonment" of its forces.
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