Ghost towns and now a ghost ceasefire in Russia-controlled Ukraine

The fighting in eastern Ukraine has created ghost towns, a ghost ceasefire and, now perhaps, a ghost victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Don Murray writes. He and the Russian separatists he supports are the current victors of a battered landscape.

Ceasefires are clearly meaningless in the current context, but what do the resulting gains mean?

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has created ghost towns, ghost mines and now not one but two ghost ceasefires.

Four days after the second Minsk agreement was supposed to come into effect, Ukrainian troops were withdrawing from the town of Debaltseve after being battered by heavy and regular artillery fire and street-to-street fighting.

Asked to account for the killing offensive, Russian separatist leaders in the region and Russian officials in the Kremlin said the ceasefire simply didn't count when it came to Debaltseve because that was already separatist territory. They had a right, they said, to clean out government troops any way they wished.

A new Russian concept then: a ceasefire is simply war by other means.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. The first ceasefire for eastern Ukraine, Minsk 1, came into effect in early September. Since then almost 4,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands more have been forced to flee their towns and villages in the blasted region.

Debaltseve is the latest of the "ghost towns" the conflict has created; fewer than 7,000 of its pre-war population of 25,000 remain.

In the surrounding region lie the ghost mines. The Donbass, as the region is known, was a huge coal producer in Soviet and post-Soviet times. Now, three-quarters of the mines are abandoned.

A victory foretold

The second ghost ceasefire, like the first, has produced obvious winners and losers.

Militarily, the separatists once again can trumpet their gains while the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, was reduced to offering a mind-bending assessment of the loss.

"The Ukrainian armed forces fully delivered on their tasks," he said. "We showed the whole world the true image of the bandits, separatists supported by Russia. Debaltseve was under our control. There was no encirclement. We withdrew in an organized manner."

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks to be the clear winner from the current "ceasefire" in eastern Ukraine as Russian-backed separatist forces continue fighting and Ukrainian troops withdraw. (Reuters)

Politically, at least in the short term, the losers and winners are equally obvious.

The European leadership duo of Germany's Angela Merkel and France's François Hollande pushed for the Minsk talks and pushed through the Minsk 2 agreement in the hope of freezing the conflict before Debaltseve fell. That hope was clearly vain.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, can be pleased with another military gain by the forces the Kremlin supports, arms and, so NATO leaders insist, reinforces with its own troops.

This was, it should be said, a victory foretold because Merkel, the key Western leader in dealing with Putin, all but telegraphed her moves in advance.

On Feb. 7, just days before the Minsk negotiations, she gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference laying out her approach to the Ukraine situation.

In it, she was fiercely critical of Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support for the separatists, but she also explicitly rejected calls to arm Ukraine.

"I cannot imagine a single scenario in which better equipment for the Ukrainian army would lead President Putin to be so impressed to believe that he might lose militarily." That, she said, was reality.

German delegates at the conference applauded. Poroshenko was there too. He sat in the first row unsmiling and didn't applaud.

No neutral observers

When Merkel went to Minsk she asked for an immediate ceasefire. Putin countered with a proposal for a ceasefire in 10 days, time enough to overrun Debaltseve.

In the end, the leaders agreed on a two-day delay, which the separatists, backed by the Kremlin, simply ignored until they pushed the Ukrainian army units out of the beleaguered town.

  Merkel and Hollande may argue the ceasefire saved several units and several  hundred men of the Ukrainian forces from annihilation  and possibly saved the army itself from imploding.
From left, Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko, Russia's Vladimir Putin, Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Francois Hollande and Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko pose for a family photo during peace talks in Minsk on Feb. 11. (Grigory Dukor/Reuters)

The German intelligence service says the risk of that implosion is still very real, an analysis that is a world away from Putin's paranoid description of the Ukrainian armed forces as a "NATO foreign legion."

The European leaders can also claim that the fighting has died down greatly elsewhere along the ceasefire line, offering some hope to the biggest losers of all in the conflict, the Ukrainian civilians who are now refugees in their own land.

The Minsk 2 agreement does offer the Kyiv government the consolation of Russia's acceptance of the territorial integrity of the country (minus Crimea).

But what it gives with one hand it takes away with the other.

No Ukrainian forces or officials or international representatives will be allowed to observe the border between Russia and eastern Ukraine.

In effect, the door is open for the territory to become Novorossia — New Russia — the old Czarist term revived last year by Putin for the area.

Another wall

But this victory for Putin contains its own risks.

He inherits responsibility for a region and several million people economically devastated. To add to their misery, the Ukrainian government, facing a huge economic crisis, has cut off salaries and pensions to people in areas controlled by the separatists.

Russia, facing its own economic crisis, will have to find the money to help its new subjects and to re-launch the area's moribund economy.

Putin may also find his own country facing a new, if smaller "long twilight struggle."

Thousands of Hungarians, many holding Ukrainian flags, protest ahead of a visit by Putin to Budapest on Monday. It was the Russian president's first bilateral visit to a European Union country since June 2014. (Reuters)

That was the term U.S. president John F. Kennedy used in January 1961 to describe the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union.

Eight months later the Berlin Wall went up separating East and West Germany as well as Eastern and Western Europe.

In speaking of eastern Ukraine recently, Merkel more than once invoked the Berlin Wall and the need to play a long game against Russia.

In the end the wall was breached and East Germany collapsed. Her hope is that, one day, history might repeat itself in Putin's Novorossia.

But West Germany in the Cold War was an economic powerhouse. Ukraine today is an economic basket case, and Russia can probably keep it that way.

For the moment, Putin can drink from his victory chalice without calling on his taster to swallow poison. For the Kremlin, ghost ceasefires appear to be effective tools, and their results sweet.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.


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