The Russian-American history it replete with instances where Washington walked away triumphalist at the end of a standoff while Moscow retired hanging its head low. Let us dip into the past for a minute. Remember the incident at Pristina airport in June 1999 when Russian forces took over the area ahead of a NATO deployment, leading to a tense stand-off and had to vacate eventually?

Or, remember the hushed-up incident in Afghanistan when Moscow landed 12 huge Ilyushin-76 aircraft with military personnel in Bagram airport in November 2001 and the US warned Russia to vacate (which it did) – but only to create space for the unannounced landing of American troops within days? (Moscow had taken the then Afghan interim government’s permission for the deployment, but the US didn’t even care to do that.)

Or, remember the painful Georgian transition in 2003 where Moscow thought it was playing a key mediatory role in tandem with Washington to persuade Eduard Shevardnadze to quit power, while the US was in reality hoodwinking its Russian ‘partner’ by working on the ‘color revolution’ in Tbilisi to instal a new regime that could be depended upon to be hostile toward Russia?

Conceivably, however, Moscow is not blinking this time around – in eastern Ukraine. Russia has ignored American warnings that the Ukrainian separatist forces surrounding the garrison in Debaltseve in the eastern region should back off.

President Vladimir Putin has not only not put pressure on the Ukrainian separatist forces to forthwith withdraw from the town of Debaltseve, where fighting is raging despite the ceasefire from Sunday but  instead called on them to allow the besieged Ukrainian troops safe passage and also urged Kiev to allow its troops to surrender.

Debaltseve is the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ of World War II. It is a highly strategic transportation hub, the control of which would be of critical importance if a war breaks out in Ukraine (which cannot be ruled out in future.) The situation around Debaltseve is extremely embarrassing for Washington because in the first instance it only goaded Kiev to press ahead with a military offensive against the separatists. The reports say some 8000 Ukrainian troops have been encircled by the separatists and over 80 percent of the town of Debaltseve is under the control of the separatists.

Washington and Kiev are now facing a grim choice. The ground situation in Debaltseve is desperate and it is impossible to stem the tide against the separatists. The troops are running out of ammunition and supplies and the separatists are in fully cry, sensing victory.

On the other hand, a stunning defeat and surrender in Debaltseve will deal a huge blow to the prestige of the pro-US set-up in Kiev (which even refuses to admit the ground situation in Debaltseve.) Can the government in Kiev survive such a heavy blow? A coup by the military or by right-wing neo-Nazi Ukrainian ultra-nationalists – cannot be ruled out.

That leaves the US in an unenviable position, because once the façade of ‘democracy’ is ripped off, Washington will be hard-pressed to openly identify with the grotesque face of Ukrainian nationalism and its gory neo-Nazi past. Besides, after all the triumphalist rhetoric of the past year following the coup in Kiev one year ago last February, Washington knows fully well that Moscow has turned the tables on it. See my blog Russia’s Putin wins in Ukraine conflict.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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