Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called for UN forces to be deployed to monitor a ceasefire in east Ukraine, a proposal that pro-Russia rebels swiftly said would be in breach of a peace deal.
At an emergency meeting late on Wednesday (18 February), Ukraine’s national security and defence council approved Poroshenko’s request, a clear sign of Ukraine’s concerns after pro-Russian rebels seized a town after a ceasefire took effect on Sunday. “The best format for us is a police mission of the EU,” Poroshenko said according to a statement on his website.
“It will be the most efficient guarantor of security in the situation when the word of peace is not observed either by Russia or by those who are supported by it.”
Ukraine pulled thousands of troops out of the east Ukrainian town of Debaltseve on Wednesday after failing to stop an offensive by Moscow-backed rebels who said the railway hub was not part of last week’s ceasefire.
The rebels denounced Poroshenko’s call for peacekeepers, saying their presence would “violate” the ceasefire, negotiated in marathon talks by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine in the Belarussian capital Minsk late last week.
“This is an actual violation of the package of measures to implement the Minsk agreement,” Denis Pushilin, a senior separatist figure, was quoted as saying by Russia’s RIA news agency.
“And so we have a very negative attitude to this. Moreover we are ready to address the heads of state who were guarantors that Ukraine would meet its commitments.”
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations was also quoted as saying that Poroshenko’s proposal put into doubt Ukraine’s resolve to fulfil the Minsk agreements.
Twenty-two Ukrainian soldiers had earlier been killed in Debaltseve in the past few days, the Ukrainian military high command said, with more than 150 wounded.
Putting a brave face
Poroshenko, who flew to the frontline, nevertheless tried to cast the battle in a positive light, saying that by holding out as long as they had, Ukraine’s troops had exposed “the true face of the bandits and separatists who are supported by Russia”.
The Ukrainian troops had held out for three days beyond the start of a Europe-brokered ceasefire, forcing the rebels to disavow the truce to pursue their advance on the town.
Ukrainian troops, their faces blackened, some in columns, some in cars, arrived in Artemivsk, about 30 KM north of Debaltseve in government-held territory.
Eighty percent of the troops had withdrawn from the town by morning, Poroshenko said, and the rest were leaving in what he described as a planned and orderly withdrawal. He added that the force withdrawing numbered more than 2,000 men.
The rebels described the battle as a victory, and said they let the Ukrainian troops leave only after they were defeated.
“There were no attempts by Ukrainian forces to break through. The surrounded Ukrainian forces were completely demoralised. They lost their direction. They began shooting at residential areas of Debaltseve,” said a senior rebel commander, Eduard Basurin.
Despite drafting a UN Security Council resolution that called on all sides to cease fighting, Russia never criticised the rebel advance on Debaltseve. Hours before the town fell, President Vladimir Putin told Ukraine it should let its men surrender to save their lives.
The rebel advance drew denunciations from Western powers, who accused Moscow of sending its armed forces to fight on behalf of the separatists in clear violation of the ceasefire negotiated with Germany and France last week in the Belarus capital, Minsk.
Western countries criticised Russia’s denials that it aids the rebels. NATO says that hundreds of Russian troops are fighting in eastern Ukraine with advanced weapons systems.
Nevertheless, Western outrage was tempered by the hope that Putin and the rebels would now halt their advance and allow the peace deal to take effect, having achieved their immediate objective in a war that has killed more than 5,000 people.
While Washington and its European allies threatened to impose new economic sanctions on Moscow if fighting did not end, they were also careful to say the peace deal was still alive.
“We don’t consider it dead,” US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington. “We still need time for the agreement to work through.”
A German government spokesman said the Minsk agreement had been damaged but it still made sense to try to implement it.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in Brussels that the rebels’ actions were in clear violation of the ceasefire and that “the EU stands ready to take appropriate action in case the fighting and other negative developments in violation of the Minsk agreements continue.”
For Poroshenko, ordering the retreat may have saved the lives of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers. But another military defeat, coming as Ukraine approaches the first anniversary of the overthrow of the Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich, may be difficult to stomach for a population weary of a long conflict.
The leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine gave their support to a deal to end fighting in eastern Ukraine following 17-hour negotiations in the Belarussian capital Minsk on 12 February.
The four leaders had committed to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, according to a joint declaration.
In a press conference in Minsk the transcript of which was published on the Kremlin website, Putin said that one of the outstanding issues is that the “representatives of the Donetsk and Lugansk peoples’ republics” say their forces have encircled 6.000 to 8.000 Ukrainian troops in the area of Debaltseve, and that they expect them to surrender without violence.
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