By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
— UPDATED, MARCH 5 — The danger of direct Western military intervention in Ukraine remains palpable following the rebels’ dramatic seizure of Debaltseve in mid-February. The Obama administration, which has already sent over $118 million in “non-lethal” equipment to Ukraine, is deliberating whether to contribute heavy weaponry, or even troops, to the war in Ukraine’s east.
Many in Congress, as well as top Pentagon staff members, are pushing strongly to send weapons. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, told a Senate committee on March 4, “I think we should absolutely consider lethal aid and it ought to be in the context of NATO allies because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s ultimate objective is to fracture NATO.”
The Obama administration, on the other hand, has been more guarded in its responses—at least in public. On March 4, Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that the decision to send heavy arms, as well as tightening sanctions against Russia, would depend on whether or not the administration judges that the current cease-fire is being implemented.
While administrative figures have not yet committed themselves to increased military aid, they have prepared the ground with Cold War rhetoric. At a security conference in Munich in February, Vice President Joe Biden lashed out against Russia and warned against appeasement: “This is a moment where the U.S. and Europe must stand firm. Russia cannot be allowed to redraw the map of Europe.”
German and French leaders have been less bellicose in their language than their American counterparts. In early February, as alarms sounded that the Obama administration was moving toward arming the Kiev regime with missiles, German Chancellor Anglea Merkel and French President François Hollande were able to take the initiative in cobbling together a conference in Minsk, Belarus, which agreed to the cease-fire. Merkel told supporters that her country and France would continue to work for the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine, “but we want to do it with Russia, not against Russia.”
This more cautious stance reflects the deepening economic crisis in Europe and the dependency of Europe on Russian oil and gas. For example, Germany imports almost 39 percent of its natural gas from Russia. Moreover, Germany is responsible for 30 percent of EU exports to Russia—mainly vehicles and machinery. Merkle’s government is afraid that tighter sanctions against Russia, let alone military intervention, might push Moscow to retaliate with sanctions against German exports.
But following the rout of Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve, and flare-ups in other locations that appear to violate the terms of the Minsk cease-fire pact, the United States has refused to back away from the military option.
On Feb. 19, major newspapers in Germany, including Das Bild and Der Spiegel, leaked the contents of a recent Munich meeting in which top U.S. officials and military generals, speaking in private among themselves, were explicit in advocating that heavy weapons to be sent to Ukraine. Victoria Nuland attempted to assuage any misgivings they might have had about frayed ties with Germany and France: “We’re not going to send any four divisions into Ukraine, as the Europeans fear. It’s only a relatively moderate delivery of anti-tank weapons.”
The entry into Debaltseve by troops of the rebel-proclaimed Donestsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics (DPR and LPR) was a stunning defeat for the Kiev regime and its U.S. backers. Debaltseve is a key junction in the main railway line between the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his top officers made it a badge of honor to hold the town, despite the fact that their soldiers were surrounded and outgunned. The Novorossia Today website stated that DPR authorities had repeatedly asked the Kiev forces to lay down their arms, and had left a corridor open for them to leave the town—but Poroshenko and the military brass would not allow their troops to surrender.
Later, President Poroshenko boasted in a taped statement that Ukrainian armed forces in the area had left Debaltseve according to a preconceived plan. “Debaltseve was under our control, there was no encirclement, and our troops left the area in a planned and organized manner with all the heavy weaponry,” he said. However, CNN news footage showed a scene that was far different from the president’s claims. Shells of burnt-out tanks and armored trucks lined the road. Artillery shells, and even missiles, were still lying in their packing crates where fleeing Ukrainian troops had left them.
Hospitals in Artemovsk, a town to the north that is still held by the Kiev government, were filled with wounded men. Interviews with soldiers in Artemovsk revealed that many were filled with anger at their own commanders, while others were in despair. The men told of striving to withstand shelling day and night, enduring food shortages, and feeling they had been left there to die. “We were praying all the time, and already said goodbye to our lives a hundred times,” a soldier told a correspondent for the New York Daily News.
The Feb. 19 London Independent described the scene in Artemovsk: “Many soldiers were in a demoralized and drunken state. Shellshocked soldiers from the battle in Debaltseve wandered the streets through the day Wednesday [Feb. 18], before beginning to drink heavily. By Wednesday evening, gunshots were ringing out on the central square. One man stood, swaying, on the sidewalk mumbling to himself.
“Soldiers who had escaped from Debaltseve after weeks of shelling were commandeering taxi cabs without payment. It was not clear that all of them had been given places to sleep, and one group stood silently, shivering on a street outside the Hotel Ukraine. And at Biblios, an upscale restaurant in Artemivsk, soldiers staggered about in the dining room, ordering brandy for which they had no money to pay, and then firing shots into the ceiling as other guests quietly fled the premises.”
These scenes of demoralized Kiev troops emphasize the lack of popular support for the war. In February, Poroshenko authorized a new draft of men under the age of 27. But many families have resisted such call-ups, stating emphatically that their young men will not report for duty.
Since the Kiev government, which came to power in a U.S. and European Union-backed coup in May 2014, has been unable to depend on draftees to fight with any enthusiasm, it has chosen to rely on volunteer formations like the Azov Battalion, which include right-wing ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis. While the fighting was going on around Debaltseve, the Azov Battalion was spearheading a Ukrainian government drive to take back territory along the Black Sea coast, near Mariupol. Azov and similar paramilitary groups have been charged with rights abuses and war crimes.
Civilians in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east have suffered horribly in the war. Both the Ukrainian government and the UN report that close to 6000 civilians have died, while over a million have been displaced from their homes. As Kiev troops streamed out of Debaltseve, a middle-aged woman near the town told CNN, “Of course, it’s better now that we are not being shelled—but we have no pensions.” The Kiev government has halted all pensions and budgetary payments to the rebel region.
On Feb. 19 Ukraine deepened the distress of civilians by switching off the natural gas pipeline to the Luhansk area. Kiev had warned in the past that it would cut off gas and electricity to the Russian-speaking region unless it received payment. In this case, however, the Ukrainian state gas company sidestepped taking blame for the shutdown by alleging that it had been caused by “shelling and explosions” that the rebels had fired. Parliament Speaker Andrei Purgin of the Donetsk Peoples Republic (DPR) said that his government would switch to using gas from Russia, which has agreed to send humanitarian fuel supplies.
Increased military involvement by the United States and its NATO allies in Ukraine will do nothing but prolong the war and increase the country’s suffering—while drawing ever closer to a direct confrontation with Russia. Concerned people in the United States must demand: U.S. hands off Ukraine!
Photo: Refugees flee the fighting around Debaltseve. From AnastasiaPhoto.