Europe

Debaltseve: Pundits fear political crisis after retreat

Ukrainian forces pass through the centre of town on February 17, 2015 in Myronivskyi, Ukraine Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ukraine denies rebel claims that Kiev's forces were encircled in Debaltseve

The retreat of Ukrainian troops from the strategic town of Debaltseve prompts fears of disunity and soul-searching among Ukrainian commentators, while state media in Russia are keen to highlight the Ukrainian setback.

The pro-Kremlin state-controlled outlets depict the Ukrainian soldiers retreating from Debaltseve as victims of a callous political leadership.

A correspondent for English-language TV news channel RT says Ukrainian commanders have left "thousands" of their soldiers in Debaltseve "highly demoralised, low on ammunition and low on supplies.

"They had little sleep and their situation is quite desperate," he adds of the soldiers.

The domestic rolling news channel Rossiya 24 adopts a similar tack.

"The commanders of the units encircled near Debaltseve have fled, leaving their fighters to the mercy of fate," the channel's presenter says.

The channel also makes a point of stressing that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko "continues to say" that Ukrainian troops were not encircled in Debaltseve.

'Crimes'

On the Ukrainian side, there is anger at perceived gamesmanship by Russian President Vladimir Putin over Debaltseve and the truce - as well as a lively debate about the performance of the Ukrainian leadership.

Ukrainian MP Oleksy Honcharenko, who spent two days near Debaltseve, even calls for Mr Putin to be tried at The Hague.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Russian-backed rebels have long tried to oust Ukrainian forces from Debaltseve

"What happened in Debaltseve is a crime against humanity," he writes on the Ukrayinska Pravda news website. "The ceasefire was not observed even for one hour at Debaltseve."

"Putin is willing to sacrifice on the altar of the 'Russian World' the lives of thousands of Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine whom he allegedly came to protect," Mr Honcharenko adds, referring to Mr Putin's claim to be the leader and protector of ethnic Russians everywhere.

Journalist Viktor Tregubov believes Mr Putin's real aim is to sow dissent in Ukrainian ranks and fatally weaken the country's pro-Western leadership.

"What I'm scared of the most is a coup attempt, more than any problems on the front," he writes on his Facebook page.

"Putin is staking everything on it, more than on any military victory.

"Any further discord and the enemy will be in Kiev," he warns, "and no-one in Europe will mind because it will look like the best option for them. And no heroism will save us."

Yury Dobronravin - a widely-followed IT engineer who took part in the Maidan protests and has spent time on the front with Ukrainian troops - is even more pessimistic.

"Putin is preparing the next stage of destroying Ukraine for today or tomorrow, which is a riot that will turn into a coup," he writes on Facebook.

"All the hotheads must understand that a coup is the ONLY scenario for Putin's victory in this war - his LAST chance to save Russia from collapsing."

'Clueless'

Semen Semenchenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament who leads the volunteer Donbass Battalion, says it is time for army chief Viktor Muzhenko and other top officers to take responsibility for the setback at Debaltseve and resign.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hunkering down: Conditions for civilians in Debaltseve are reported to be tough

"The chief of the General Staff must be held to account. The clueless leadership must go and stop wasting the lives of our guys."

But Yury Biryukov - a presidential aide and support volunteer - insists there is no alternative to Ukraine's current military leadership, despite its "many and frequent mistakes".

By delaying the withdrawal from Debaltseve, he argues, Ukraine was at least able to ensure that its Western partners "registered the fact that Russia violated the Minsk agreements".

Pundit Taras Berezovets also defends the authorities' performance, adding that Russia failed to turn Debaltseve into a repeat of the Battle of Ilovaisk in August, when Ukrainian forces suffered a damaging defeat at the hands of pro-Moscow rebels.

He adds that as a result of the continued fighting in Debaltseve, Mr Putin has left US President Barack Obama "without his last argument against supplying Ukraine with defensive and lethal weapons".

BBC Monitoring reports and analyses news from TV, radio, web and print media around the world. You can follow BBC Monitoring on Twitter and Facebook.

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