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Occasional fighting in Ukraine may continue but that does not mean the Minsk II ceasefire will fail, says Tarik Cyril Amar, Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Just a week into the European-brokered ceasefire agreement, Ukrainian soldiers withdrew from an embattled town in Eastern Ukraine on Wednesday morning. The Minsk II ceasefire never quite took hold between the Ukrainian government and the separatist rebels, because they are still fighting. About 8,000 government troops had been fighting for weeks in Debaltseve, a railroad junction in rebel-controlled territory. As of Wednesday afternoon, it was unclear how many soldiers had survived the violent retreat. Now joining us to discuss all of this from New York City is Tarik Cyril Amar. Tarik is an assistant professor of history at Columbia University and an associate of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. Tarik’s upcoming book is the paradox of Ukrainian Lviv: A Borderland City between Stalinists, Nazis, and Nationalists. Thank you so much for joining us, Tarik. TARIK CYRIL AMAR, ASSIST. PROF. HISTORY, COLUMBIA UNIV.: Thank you. PERIES: So, Tariq, what does the Ukrainian army’s retreat mean for this ceasefire? Is it going to hold? AMAR: I think it is easier to say what it does not necessarily mean. It does not necessarily mean the collapse of the ceasefire. The ceasefire has indeed a lot of inbred weaknesses, and they have been discussed before Debaltseve fell. But the fact that Debaltseve has been taken is not necessarily the end of the ceasefire, for very simple reason. During the Minsk II negotiations, when the ceasefire was actually hammered out, I think either/or or almost every important player in that room in Minsk actually understood that Debaltseve was already de facto encircled. There is a little bit of quibbling about the terminology. The Ukrainian government would like us to believe that that wasn’t quite the case, but it is pretty clear, and that Debaltseve would be very unlikely to be held by Kiev. Personally, I think the curious fact that the ceasefire was timed, as it were, that as you know, there were several days, I think, two days between the conclusion of the ceasefire and its actually entering into force, in fact also had to do with this. I think these days were meant as an interval that both fighting sides could then use, as cynical as that is, to do some more fighting and capturing of territory just before the ceasefire entered into force. What has happened now, I feel, is that that timing hasn’t quite worked out. Debaltseve has fallen later. It has fallen after the ceasefire entered into force. But that doesn’t change the fact that many of those who negotiated the ceasefire actually had a sense that this might very well happen. So this was anticipated. The real question right now is actually what happens next. Very roughly speaking, if we now see an extension of separatist rebel Russian aggression once again further advances, perhaps towards the city of Mariopol in the South, or perhaps the opposite direction, even towards the city of Harkiv–hardly imaginable, but it has been talked about, unfortunately–then we know that the ceasefire has collapsed. If on the other side we see that after capturing Debaltseve the rebels and the Russians will essentially hold the territory they have now but desist from further expansion, then the ceasefire as a process is not dead, as flawed as it may be. PERIES: Now, Tarik, what’s happening to the area that they were supposed to withdraw from the borderland in order to clear and provide some space for both sides? AMAR: Well, one has to say that the withdrawal is also relative. What we are really talking about is a very precisely worked out scheme to withdraw certain types of weapons, essentially heavy weapons that can be used for long-distance attacks [incompr.] certain types of artillery and certain types of rocketry, really. Those are supposed to be withdrawn. But it doesn’t mean that the military forces will also withdraw. What it means: they will become, as it were, much less heavily equipped. Now, that process, perhaps with minor exceptions, has not really started yet. It has not really started yet. And that is one of the next really important big questions, whether that process would start or whether both sides would simply desist from doing that. If that process starts–under OSCE observation, of course–then that again would be a sign that in spite of the fall of Debaltseve–which is a violation of the ceasefire–in spite of the fall of Debaltseve, the ceasefire can still function, at least to some degree. If that process doesn’t start, if both sides or one side keeps stalling on it, then once again that’s a strong indicator that the ceasefire really has not even got off the ground. PERIES: Now, yesterday during a visit in Budapest, President Vladimir Putin urged Ukrainian troops to–and I quote here–to leave behind weaponry, lay down arms, and surrender. What does the situation in Debaltseve tell us about this particular comment by Putin? AMAR: That is not what has happened. I mean, that’s the minimum we can say. What seems to have happened, from various reports, is that Ukrainian army units–these are not volunteer battalions, and that’s a very important difference–Ukrainian army units, consisting also simply of draftees, sometimes quite recently drafted men, have broken out of Debaltseve, and have, so to speak, enacted a sort of fighting retreat, but nevertheless, clearly a retreat. They seem to have taken some severe losses by doing that, certainly in materiel. But there have also been people killed and wounded, of course, during that operation. Parts of the Ukrainian leadership, the president, Poroshenko, first, most of all, is trying to depict this as a well-organized operation, in which, as he says, 80 percent of Ukrainian forces were saved by this retreat. I am skeptical about this. We get reports in the English-language press, but I also see them in Ukrainian, actually, in the Ukrainian media sphere, that this might partly been the initiative of local commanders. Actually, /kraɪθ/ junior officers who realized that they were being left high and dry, that they were not being resupplied, they were running out of even small arms ammunitions. They were definitely running out of heavy weapons. Their fighting vehicles have been destroyed. They were under very intensive shelling. And it seems that these local commanders really made the decision to retreat, which I personally think was the right decision. But if that’s the story, it also tells you something about the way in which Kiev has treated these troops, and that in itself may become another politically charged question. PERIES: And why is that so? Why is it so charged? AMAR: Because we already have attacks on the government from two sides. One side is the more or less radical right, partly the leaders of volunteer battalions, like Semen Semenchenko, somebody who should be known by now in America because he actually tried to pass off fake photographies to an American senator. He was involved in that affair. Semen Semenchenko has already come out today, and he’s essentially in very brutal terms accused the president of stabbing Ukraine in the back, of essentially betraying Ukraine because he didn’t manage to hold Debaltseve. And then we have another line of criticism also attacking the government, which is different, namely asserting that the government has been cynical, that it was trying to let the people–trying to let these army units fight in Debaltseve, not really with the purpose of holding the place, because it may have known that that was no longer possible, but there’s the purpose of having a scenario in which it could be shown that the rebels and the Russians were breaking the ceasefire, which in turn could have become ammunition in the publicity battle over Western opinion. And in these two directions, the Ukrainian government under Poroshenko, under President Poroshenko, is already now under criticism, and I think that we will see more of that. So this retreat from Debaltseve, while it may very well have been inevitable, may also become another serious liability on the domestic politics of Ukraine. PERIES: Let’s take that up in the next segment. Thank you for joining us. AMAR: Thank you very much. PERIES: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Tarik Cyril Amar is a historian of the 20th century, specializing in the history of Ukraine, Russia, and the Soviet Union. He is an associate professor in the department of history at Koç University, and was previously an assistant professor of history at Columbia University. He received his BA from Oxford University, MSc from London School of Economics, and PhD from Princeton University. Amar is the former academic director of the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv. He is the author of The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv: A Borderland City between Nazis, Stalinists, and Nationalists.