Just days since a truce began between Russia and Ukraine at midnight Saturday night, few signs remain of that fragile peace.
Ukrainian troops retreated from the disputed eastern Ukrainian city of Debaltseve on Wednesday, leaving the transport hub surrounded by Russian-backed separatist rebels. (RELATED: Putin Shows Upper Hand In Ukraine Truce)
The cease-fire agreement, which was brokered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, theoretically created a deweaponized “buffer zone” between Ukrainian troops and rebel-held areas in Ukraine’s east. But in practice, one analyst speculated last week that it gave Russia’s Vladimir Putin “an incentive to seize as much ground as possible.”
The Ukrainian soldiers reportedly returned “suppressive fire” to defend their position as they retreated. While Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko claimed the move was a “planned and organized” withdrawal, one wounded Ukrainian soldier told the Wall Street Journal from his hospital bed, “It wasn’t a withdrawal. A withdrawal is supported by artillery and along a planned route. They abandoned us.”
As early as Monday, the Department of State had condemned “aggressive actions and statements by the Russia-backed separatists” that threatened to unbalance the agreement. And Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday that “consequences have to follow in terms of sanctions” against Russia for almost immediately violating the terms of last weekend’s deal.
Ukraine’s east, which Russian propaganda often calls Novorossiya (“New Russia”), resembles Russia more closely than the rest of Ukraine in its language and culture. Rebel groups have been fighting for the east’s union with Russia since shortly after last year’s ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. Crimea, another distinctive region of Ukraine, voted to leave the country last year in a referendum widely regarded as influenced by Russia-backed fighters.
Rebel leaders claim that Debaltseve has always been rightfully theirs, and Reuters reports that Putin never asked them to retreat from the city.
Poroshenko has vowed to bring a measure against Russia’s breach of treaty to the U.N. Security Council. Leading Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda has reported that Poroshenko intends to request a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country, while also claiming that outside a few isolated cities, Russia has upheld the truce. All territory acquired by the separatists before last weekend remains under their control.
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