Debacle at Debaltsevo

Republished from CIPS Blog.

Before coming up with solutions it is first advisable to determine the nature of the problem. Right now the United States is considering sending arms to Ukraine, while here in Canada the Defence Minister, Jason Kenney, has been mulling the deployment of Canadian soldiers to train the Ukrainian Army. But is a lack of arms or training the real reason for the Ukrainian Army’s defeats?

To answer that question, it is worth looking at what has been happening in the town of Debaltsevo, where a large Ukrainian contingent, possibly several thousand strong, was encircled by rebel forces. The government in Kiev has repeatedly denied that its troops were surrounded, but even Ukrainian military journalists acknowledge that the main road out of Debaltsevo is in rebel hands and that troops of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics have captured most of the town, as well as a substantial number of prisoners. On the night of February 17-18, a large part of the garrison escaped through gaps in rebel lines, but Ukrainian sources report heavy casualties in the process. Substantial quantities of equipment have been destroyed or have fallen into rebel hands. Ukraine has suffered a serious defeat.

How did the Ukrainians end up in this mess? The answer is not a lack of weapons. They had plenty in Debaltsevo and the surrounding area. Nor is a lack of training to blame. For sure, the Ukrainian soldiers are not as well trained as those of Western armies, but neither are the rebels. The evidence suggests that those surrounded in Debaltsevo fought bravely and for the most part effectively. It is not the fault of the soldiers that they were encircled.

Rather, it is the fault of Ukraine’s highest level political and military leaders. The rebel plan to cut the supply lines to Debaltsevo was no secret. The rebels proclaimed it openly. Moreover, their plan did not succeed instantaneously, but took several weeks.

The Ukrainian high command had plenty of time to withdraw its troops to safety long before it did. Instead, it buried its head in the sand and repeatedly denied that there was a problem. Reports suggest that during the recent peace negotiations in Minsk, President Poroshenko of Ukraine and President Putin of Russia spent many hours arguing over whether Debaltsevo was encircled. Poroshenko insisted that it was not and claimed, therefore, that no provision was needed in the peace settlement for the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops. After the agreement at Minsk was signed, the rebels offered the Ukrainians safe passage out of Debaltsevo. The offer was rejected. Ukraine’s leaders had the opportunity to save their men, but they did not take it, incorrectly believing that they could still hold onto the town. They could not. Many lives were lost unnecessarily.

This is not a unique occurrence. Last July, Ukrainian soldiers were similarly surrounded in a zone which the rebels called the ‘southern cauldron’, a thin corridor about 60 kilometres long south of the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk. Again, this disaster was not only predictable but predicted. As early as the start of July, the Ukrainian General Staff warned of a coming ‘catastrophe’ and suggested that the army abandon the sector in question. It was overruled, the troops were surrounded, many were killed, hundreds more surrendered, and large quantities of equipment were lost.

In short, Ukraine’s defeats are the result of dismal leadership rather than a want of weapons or training. Unfortunately, Western countries’ obsession with Russia has deluded them into thinking that Ukraine’s problems are entirely the fault of Russian malevolence, and has blinded them into ignoring the role played by the Ukrainian government’s incompetence.

To date, the policy of Canada and its allies has been to change Russian behaviour by means of sanctions. But Ukrainian behaviour also needs changing: in particular, Kiev has to abandon all hopes of military victory and face the reality that it must negotiate directly with the rebels in order to enact the constitutional reform required in the latest Minsk agreement. Our influence on Russia is very limited. We do, however, have leverage over Ukraine, and can hope to change its behaviour. Rather than giving unconditional support, we should start trying to effect that change.


Be Afraid!

This graph from The Economist, which I spotted on the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog, shows that European NATO members spent almost four times as much on defence last year as Russia ($265 bn as opposed to $70 bn). If one adds the United States ($640 bn), NATO defence spending is around nine times that of Russia. Yet the graph manages to suggest that it is Russia which is threatening Europe. Be afraid!

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Object lesson #15: Yeltsin matrioshka

Russia’s economy collapsed in the 1990s, but for the matrioshka industry it was boom time. Freed from the restraints of socialist central planning, entrepreneurs brought out matrioshkas in different shapes, sizes, and designs. The fact that for the first time in 70 years political leaders were safe targets for caricature led to the creation of the political matrioshka. Here is an example I bought in 1995, featuring President Boris Yeltsin on the outside, with Gorbachev, Brezhnev, Khrushchev, Stalin, Lenin, and Nicholas II inside.

yeltsin doll

Not so super after all

Peace talks in Minsk to end the war in Ukraine finished early on Thursday morning with the signing of agreement by representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR). Almost any agreement is a step in the right direction, but many people had expected more. After all the hype which preceded the talks in Minsk, as well as Sergei Lavrov’s statement about ‘super’ progress, the final result is something of a disappointment.

Before the Minsk document was revealed, there had been considerable speculation that it would involve a demilitarized zone separating the two warring armies in Ukraine, to be occupied by some sort of international peacekeeping force. Had this been the case, we could have been reasonably confident that any ceasefire would hold. As it is, the agreement only mandates a variation of what was agreed in September last year, namely a withdrawal of artillery. Other weapons systems as well as the soldiers who use them will not have to withdraw. The two sides will therefore remain in close contact, creating lots of opportunities for ceasefire violations.

The agreement also doesn’t stipulate what the ceasefire line should be: Ukrainian artillery has to withdraw from the current line, and rebel artillery from the line held in September, but other forces will apparently stay where they are. This in effect recognizes rebel gains since September, but leaves unanswered the question of what will happen to the Ukrainian forces currently surrounded in the area of Debaltsevo. Being on the verge of destroying the Ukrainian forces in Debaltsevo, the rebels are not likely to observe a ceasefire which allows the Ukrainians to remain there. Vladimir Putin remarked that the rebels ‘assume that this grouping lays down its arms and ceases resistance’. But the Minsk agreement doesn’t address the issue, and the Ukrainians may well see things differently. Are the Ukrainians to remain in place? In which case, how are they to be resupplied? Or are they to be withdrawn? We do not know.

Then, there is the thorny question of the final political settlement. The Minsk agreement calls for Ukraine to introduce a constitutional amendment providing for decentralization of power in Donbass by the end of 2015. But it doesn’t lay out any specifics, saying only that the amendment should take into account the peculiarities of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions ‘as agreed with the representatives of these regions’. This suggests that the constitutional amendment must not be unilaterally imposed by Kiev but must be the result of negotiation. But who are these ‘representatives’ with whom it must be negotiated? The leaders of the DPR and LPR will no doubt say that they are, and that any constitutional change requires their agreement. Kiev will very possibly claim that the ‘representatives’ of the region are the Ukrainian government officials in the parts of Donbass it controls. One can easily foresee a situation in which Kiev insists that it has fulfilled its obligations under the Minsk agreement while the rebels say that it has not. It is in any case very difficult to see what sort of decentralization Kiev and the rebels could agree on.

Article 9 of the agreement says that Ukraine will regain control of its border with Russia once it has carried out constitutional reform and elections have been held in Donbass. But again, we are likely to run into problems as to who defines elections as legitimate. Kiev will probably say that only elections held under Ukrainian law are valid. The rebels will insist that those held in the DPR and LPR in November were legitimate. Again, it is hard to see how these differences will be reconciled.

Finally, there is the matter of what becomes of the rebel army. The Minsk document calls for the ‘withdrawal of all foreign armed formations, military equipment, and also mercenaries from Ukrainian territory,’ and the ‘disarmament of all illegal groups.’ The Ukrainian position is that the majority of the rebel forces are ‘foreign armed formations’ or ‘mercenaries’, while any which are not are ‘illegal groups.’ The Ukrainian government will therefore almost certainly interpret the document as meaning that the rebel army must disband completely. The rebels, however, will equally certainly claim that their troops are not foreigners nor mercenaries, and that since their governments received a popular mandate in the elections of last November, their military units are not ‘illegal’. The rebels have built up an army perhaps 30,000 strong, with tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, and artillery. They are not going to just disband it and trust that the Ukrainian Army won’t come in and take over.

None of these problems are insurmountable. As German Chancellor Angel Merkel commented, ‘There’s a real chance to turn things for the better.’ But serious obstacles remain to a lasting peace.

‘Better than super’

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov says that the peace talks in Minsk are progressing ‘better than super’. I am waiting until the talks conclude (which looks like being on Thursday) before publishing a longer post. Until then, if you want to hear my views, you can see me on CTV News channel at 6.30 pm ET tonight (Wednesday).

UPDATE: My interview is available online here.

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