The Why of…. Debaltseve, and beyond

Why is the Ukrainian town of Debaltseve always described in news reports as ‘strategic’?

In the first instance it is because it is a railway hub and part of the supply chain which takes coal from eastern Ukraine to the centre and west of the country.

This is why the Ukrainian military committed up to 6,000 troops to defend it even though it can only field about 30,000 combat troops in total. They are the heart of an army which will lose heart if it loses Debaltseve.

It is also why the Russian backed separatist forces have almost surrounded the town and appear to have taken it , thus ensuring Angela Merkel’s ‘ceasefire’ crumbles to dust.

The separatist front line is an imperfect arc from Luhansk in the north down to Mariupol in the south. The largest indentation in this line is the Debaltseve pocket bulging eastwards back towards the Russian border. Taking the area will straighten out the front lines, deny Ukraine the railway hub, secure it for the separatists, and allow them to concentrate on future targets.

The most likley woud be the port town of Mariupol. This would bring the breakaway region to the Sea of Azov, which in turn leads into the Black Sea at Crimea. Taking Mariupol is a stage closer to creating a land corridor to Crimea which was annexed last year by Russia. Consolidation of that area could act as a launch pad to move on Odessa further along the Black Sea coast, and Odessa leads to the Moldovan breakaway region of Transdiniestria which is mostly Russian speaking and already contains 2,000 Russian troops. If the separatists were to take this territory they would cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea.

The fall of Debaltseve does not automatically mean that the next target would be Mariupol, nor that the separatists, and indeed Moscow, have designs on a contiguous region all the way from the Russian border to Moldova, but it would make it more feasible to try. Debaltseve matters greatly to whatever the end game will be.

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