When a Ceasefire Is Not a Ceasefire

A technicality allowed eastern Ukrainian separatists to take another town and claim not to be violating an agreement to stop fighting.

One of the enduring ironies about ceasefires is that they can immediately produce more violence as combatants struggle for advantage before the deadline to put down their weapons. The lag between the signing and the implementation of last week's Ukrainian ceasefire reflected this pattern.

Nor did the fighting end when the ceasefire actually did take effect. On Tuesday, Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine finally captured Debaltseve, a strategic Ukrainian railway town, ending weeks of pitched battle over the area. On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered his troops to leave.

Yet a rebel commander insisted that this bout of fighting, some three days after the ceasefire went into effect, did not violate last week's deal. For their part, after the fall of Debaltseve, the United States (along with Great Britain and Ukraine) accused Russia of breaking the ceasefire, echoing last week's claim that Russia was violating the "spirit" of the deal by continuing to send weapons to the separatists after the agreement was signed.

But writing about the ceasefire last week, Russia-watcher Brian Whitmore suggested that Debaltseve was sort of a loophole missed in the fine print of a deal filled with a number of flaws:

Chief among these is the ultimate status of Debaltseve, a government-held town and strategic railway depot that is currently surrounded by separatist forces. After much haggling, the sides could not come to an agreement on Debaltseve, and its status was not mentioned in the final agreement.

Writing for The Atlantic back in September, Peter Pomerantsev offered some insights into the informational machinations that, according to Russia, could allow Russian-backed separatists to claim not to be violating the ceasefire while assaulting Debaltseve. "The new Russia doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare," he wrote. "It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action." Or in this case, it apparently tries to get off on a technicality.

More practically though, the bigger question is whether the ceasefire will actually mean an end to the fighting now that Debaltseve belongs to the separatists. Another question is what the United States, along with Germany and France (the countries that brokered last week's ceasefire in Minsk), and NATO (which condemned Russia's violation of it), will do if the fighting continues. On Wednesday, Stephane Le Foll, a spokesman for the French government, admitted things weren't great while also reaffirming France's commitment to the Minsk agreement. “We will continue, we know we have some problems, we know that not everything has been settled," she said. "But between the situation just before the Minsk agreement and the situation now … there has been progress.”