The language that the American press is using to describe the ceasefire between forces loyal to Kiev and pro-Russian militants is strangely unreflective of the situation on the ground.
The truce that both parties agreed to in Minsk last week is “largely” holding “relatively unscathed,” declared The Washington Post. “Kiev and Russia-backed separatists warily ordered their forces to abide by a cease-fire as it took effect,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “Early Sunday, officials said the truce was largely holding as most weapons across the war-torn region fell silent.” Though some violence in Ukraine continued, The New York Times assured its readers that this was to be expected given the intensity of the fighting that preceded the Minsk treaty. Ukrainian officials insist that “the accord reached last week was holding,” The Times averred.
All these organizations conceded, however, that significant combat operations have continued unabated in the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve. There, the fighting never stopped – it never even paused.
“The Ukrainian army continues to hold Debaltseve but a number of surrounding villages have fallen under the control of Russian-backed militants,” The Kyiv Post reported. “This in spite of a ceasefire which came into effect Feb. 15; militant leaders say it does not apply to the town.”
Ukraine-centric media outlets are not the only venues that are making note of the fact that the fighting between Ukrainian government forces and those loyal to Moscow bodes ill for the future of the latest Minsk accord.
“The Ukrainian military said on Monday that rebels had fired on its troops 112 times in the past 24 hours,” a report in The Guardian read. “At least five Ukrainian fighters have been killed and 25 wounded since the ceasefire began on Sunday, a military spokesman, Vladislav Seleznyov, told the Guardian.”
“The number of attacks on Debaltseve has even increased in comparison to previous days and they are using all types of weapons,” another military spokesman, Anatoly Stelmakh, said on Monday. “The terrorists have been given the order to take Debaltseve at all cost.”
Shelling destroyed the police station in the town on Monday, the regional police chief, Vyacheslav Abroskin, wrote on his Facebook page. And Ukrainian troops there have fought off several assaults, according to Seleznyov.
The rebel leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, said this weekend his forces would observe the ceasefire everywhere except in Debaltseve. Kiev has repeatedly denied that Debaltseve is cut off, despite evidence to the contrary.
This map of the situation in eastern Ukraine released on a regular basis by the Ministry of Defense in Kiev indicates precisely why the stakes are too high for both sides to observe a ceasefire (click here for a higher resolution version):
That bulge you see in the center of the rebel-held territories is the area surrounding the strategic town of Debaltseve. Government reports indicate that 60 percent of that city has been leveled by weeks of shelling and ongoing battles between factions. If the city were cut off, an unknown number of Ukrainian forces would likely be forced with having to contemplate surrender to pro-Moscow militants. Either that, or a costly and risky operation to free the besieged troops would have to be ordered by Kiev – a decision that would render the Minsk agreement void.
A negotiator in touch with the pro-Russian rebels indicated that those forces offered to observe a “green corridor” that would allow Ukrainian soldiers to evacuate the town and cede it to the rebels, so long as they abandoned their weapons and vehicles in the process. Ukraine’s president rejected similar proposals in the past and is unlikely to consent to this one while both sides are supposedly observing the terms of a mutually agreed truce.
No, the ceasefire is not “largely holding” if it is not holding in the most strategically significant area of the front. To suggest otherwise is to mislead the public on the nature of the truce, which is apparently precisely what an overexerted Kiev would like. If this situation continues, the Minsk agreement is likely to collapse and the American press will have egg on their faces.