Vladimir Putin’s latest victory in Ukraine is turning into a rout. Having already induced Western leaders to endorse a peace plan that virtually guarantees continued Russian control over parts of two provinces, the Russian ruler ordered a large Ukrainian force holding Debaltseve, a key crossroads in the region, to surrender. His forces, including regular Russian army troops, then assaulted the city in brazen violation of a cease-fire. On Wednesday morning, Ukrainian forces withdrew from Debaltseve under fire, suffering a devastating defeat that will further destabilize the shaky Kiev government of Petro Poroshenko.
Mr. Putin was so pleased that he indulged in some taunting of the Ukrainians. “Of course, it’s always bad to lose,” he said at a news conference Tuesday. “It’s always a hardship when you lose to yesterday’s miners or yesterday’s tractor drivers.” That was another lie, of course – the forces who seized Debaltseve were not former Ukrainian workers but Russian regulars; one Western reporter encountered soldiers who had been dispatched from Siberia.
What about Western leaders, who just last week solemnly declared they would hold Russia accountable if the new deal were violated? All agreed there had been, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman put it, “a massive violation” of the cease-fire agreement. But there was little visible movement toward imposing meaningful consequences. Instead, officials in Brussels echoed a White House statement that said “the costs to Russia will rise” if it “continues to violate” the agreement. That suggested only that additional aggression by Mr. Putin would get a response, maybe.
Given the West’s weakness, more aggression seems likely. But, for now, Mr. Putin has reason to preen. The takeover of Debaltseve will go a long way to consolidate the breakaway puppet state he is building in eastern Ukraine. Under the terms of the deal accepted by the West, Moscow need not allow Ukraine to control its own border with Russia unless and until it agrees to a delegation of power to the Russian entity that satisfies Mr. Putin.
Meanwhile, Mr. Poroshenko will be rocked politically by the latest costly blow to a Ukrainian army that lacks the weapons to stop Russian tanks. He will find it even harder to explain to Ukrainians why they must accept the harsh economic austerity measures his government recently agreed to in exchange for desperately needed international financing. Yet he still has scant hope of obtaining significant new aid or arms supplies from the United States; the White House seized on the supposed peace accord as one more reason to postpone meaningful action.
President Obama has frequently boasted of leading a collective U.S.-European response. But he stood back last week as Ms. Merkel and French President Francois Hollande negotiated the giveaway of eastern Ukraine to Mr. Putin. When the European Union announced a small round of new sanctions against Russian officials Monday, before Debaltseve fell, the Obama administration did not join in. Rather than lead, the president appears to have ceded the Ukraine crisis to Germany, with predictably poor results.
European leaders will not stop Russian aggression without a determined U.S. president. Ukrainians must be wondering how much more of their country must fall to Russian troops for Mr. Obama to set aside his “strategic patience.”
The Washington Post.