Russian-backed separatists kept up a barrage of shelling and made strategic territorial gains in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday as a key cease-fire deadline came and went, triggering fresh speculation that Moscow hopes to carve out a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula before Western powers take a military stand in the nation.
Even as the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a Russian-drafted resolution endorsing the cease-fire, the separatists moved deeper into the city of Debaltseve, seizing a key railway hub on its outskirts.
While the Obama administration signed off on the Security Council resolution in New York, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called its drafting by Russia “ironic, to say the least,” given that Moscow is effectively ignoring the cease-fire by “backing an all-out assault” that continues to unfold in eastern Ukraine.
Administration officials made similar assertions in Washington but appealed for patience toward the cease-fire, suggesting it could hold even if the separatists retain control of Debaltseve, where dozens of Ukrainian soldiers were reported killed and several others were said to be taken hostage Tuesday.
State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki called the separatist offensive a “flagrant breach of the cease-fire.” However, while she also pointed to reports of ongoing fighting near city of Mariupol — along the strategic coastal route that would connect Russia to Crimea — Ms. Psaki said “there remains an opportunity to abide by the cease-fire.”
But private analysts said the administration’s hopes were groundless.
“The cease-fire is falling apart right now, as we speak,” said Ariel Cohen, a longtime regional analyst who heads the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington.
“Those who say maybe [Kiev] should give up Debaltseve are embracing what can best be described as the abused wife syndrome of ‘He’ll hit me one more time and then he’ll love me,’” said Mr. Cohen. “I don’t see any evidence that the Russians are playing with a straight hand.
“The fact that they have not stopped shooting and are still adamant about taking Debaltseve indicates that the larger goals of the war are still very much alive for the Russian leadership,” he said. “And the long-term goals for Russia are for the current regime in Kiev to collapse and to prevent the Ukrainian state from ever joining NATO or integrating with Western Europe and the Atlantic.”
There were reports Tuesday of a near-constant barrage of artillery fire on Debaltseve, as Ukrainian military forces and the Russian-backed separatists fought fierce street battles for control of the city. A key railroad junction between the separatist east’s two main cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, Debaltseve has been the focus of fighting over the past two weeks and capturing it would be a prize for the rebels.
Ukraine’s government denied separatist claims to have taken control of the town but acknowledged that the separatists had seized at least parts of the city. The battle erupted despite last week’s negotiations by France and Germany of a cease-fire between Ukraine and Russia that was supposed to have gone into effect over the weekend. Tuesday was supposed to be the day that both sides would start moving back their big guns.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have said during recent days that fighting has mainly stopped across most of eastern Ukraine.
The escalation of violence in key areas has fueled frustration within the Obama administration. Speaking at the United Nations, Ms. Power said the international community has become “caught in a deadly feedback loop” in Ukraine.
Despite a string of interim agreements negotiated with Moscow in recent months, she said, “Russia’s commitments have no bearing on the actions of its soldiers and the separatists they back on the ground.”
Two key Republican hawks hammered President Obama for not taking a more aggressive posture toward Ukraine’s war and asserted that the White House should immediately authorize the shipment of U.S. weapons to the Ukrainian military.
Mr. Obama and other Western leaders “are legitimizing the dismemberment of a sovereign nation in Europe for the first time in seven decades,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. John McCain or Arizona said in a joint statement. “It is inexcusable to adhere to a failed cease-fire agreement as Russia and its Ukrainian proxies escalate their uncompromising siege of Debaltseve.”
The two senators have criticized the fact that the latest cease-fire was negotiated last week by the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, without any direct participation from Washington.
Ms. Psaki rejected the McCain-Graham statement, asserting that “every member” of the administration’s “national security team remains committed to the exact opposite, which is respecting helping Ukraine and ensuring that their sovereignty, their territorial integrity, are respected.”
“We certainly believe that a diplomatic approach and a political approach is the right approach here, but the same options that were on the table two weeks ago remain on the table,” she said in reference to the prospect of shipping U.S. weaponry, including armor-piercing tanks, to Ukraine’s military.
Congress gave the White House authority to send such weapons early this year, but the Obama administration has resisted out of concern that such a move would only escalate the war, which has killed more 5,300 people over the past year.
Mr. Graham and Mr. McCain accused the administration of delay.
“Western leaders say there is no military solution to the conflict in Ukraine,” the senators said. “Vladimir Putin clearly does not think so.”