Staunton, February 19 – By pulling Ukrainian troops out of Debaltsevo, thus preserving them to fight another day and straightening the ceasefire line, and by calling for UN or EU peacekeepers to monitor it, Petro Poroshenko has put Vladimir Putin in a difficult position because if he rejects that idea, he will show himself “ready for a major war in Europe.”
Those are the most important consequences of the events of the last 48 hours, Kyiv commentator Vitaly Portnikov argues, even though “at first glance,” that may not appear to be the case after Ukraine’s loss of Debaltsevo (liga.net/opinion/223497_proverka-mirotvortsami-zakhochet-li-putin-vyyti-iz-igry.htm).
Ukraine was not in a position to hold the salient, Portnikov says, but Putin’s plan was “not so much about the seizure of Debaltsevo as in creating a cauldron in which there would be thousands of Ukrainian soldiers” whose capture would discredit Ukraine and thus open the way for the collapse of the government in Kyiv.
By pulling the Ukrainian forces out of the salient, Poroshenko blocked the realization of Putin’s plans. But he did more than that: he stabilized the situation along the ceasefire line and made it easier for Ukraine forces to oppose Russian ones without the risks of the kind of losses that the salient might have entailed.
“Can Putin attack further?” Portnikov asks rhetorically. “Of course, he can,” but any new attack will undermine “the rickety balance in relations with the West which was achieved as a result of the Minsk agreements. If Putin does go further, then the path to new sanctions and to the arming of Ukraine will be open. And in the Kremlin, they know that very well.”
This is a question of tactics, the Kyiv commentator says, and what is necessary is to think about Putin’s strategy. “What does Putin want today: to continue the war or to get out of the Donetsk battles with the least damage to his image?” The answer to that will not be long in coming thanks to Poroshenko’s proposal of international peacekeepers.
The Ukrainian president’s proposal is “completely logical” given that Russia isn’t obeying the ceasefire even as it lies about its support of the Minsk agreements. The only way to change the situation now is to introduce peacekeepers who can act as a buffer between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
If they were to be in place, Portnikov says, that would put an end to talk about “’the restoration of the territorial integrity of the DNR’” because the pro-Moscow militants would have to “shoot at German or French troops” rather than Ukrainian ones. Any militant attacks on the former would have a much more immediate impact on the international situation.
That is because “the sanctions that would come would not be for Ukraine but for France or Germany. And these would be quite different sanctions” than those seen so far, Portnikov argues. As a result, Putin would have to impose far greater control on the militants and likely eliminating one way or another many of their current leaders.
But all of that can only occur if the West and Russia agree to Poroshenko’s call for peacekeeprs. “For the West, the dispatch of such a contingent is simpler than giving Ukraine arms and also more risky because the price of the life of each soldier in the West is much higher than is the case on the post-Soviet space.”
Moreover, if a EU police mission really did come to Ukraine and any of its personnel died, “the Europeans would seriously ask their governments why they had sent boys into such an unstable region. Therefore, the EU will need to get the agreement of Russia.” But that is possible only “if Putin really wants to stop the war.”
That could work to his advantage, but “if he refuses, then it will be completely unimportant which city he has already seized and which one he intends to seize tomorrow. It will be finally understood that Putin is preparing for a major war” and not one just with Ukraine. That will force the West to take far more intensive steps to prevent that from happening.