KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
A town in eastern Ukraine fell today to separatist fighters and their Russian allies - this, only three days after what was supposed to be a cease-fire in the area. Thousands of weary Ukrainian soldiers are now reportedly retreating under a steady pounding of artillery fire. Today's action is not only a defeat for the Ukrainian government, but it also could be a blow to a French and German effort to broker a truce in Ukraine. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us now from Moscow. And Corey, what has been the reaction to the breaking of this cease-fire?
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, the Western leaders - President Hollande of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany and, of course, the Ukrainians - are saying that this is a violation. This is not the agreement that they signed in Minsk last Thursday. But the Russians and the separatist militias they support say that this town, Debaltseve - that's the town that just fell - wasn't part of the agreement in the first place. President Putin said just yesterday that he warned the other leaders in Minsk that this was going to happen. And now, of course, it has.
MCEVERS: It's not like these talks in Minsk were short. I mean, these were long deliberations. How could this have happened?
FLINTOFF: That's a question that a lot of analysts are asking right now because Debaltseve was the center of some of the heaviest fighting in the weeks leading up to the peace talks. So it was a known problem, and yet, Debaltseve is not even mentioned by name in the Minsk document. It only mentions that the cease-fire was supposed to start on Sunday in certain areas of the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. Elsewhere, this document does say that the two sides will withdraw their heavy weapons from a line that was decided back in September when the first cease-fire was negotiated. But there's ambiguity here, and that seems odd given that the document is very specific in other places.
MCEVERS: The cease-fire wasn't supposed to take effect until nearly 60 hours after the document was signed. Everybody must have known that the fighting was going to continue during that time. I mean, is there an implication here that that extra time was allowed so the separatists could finish the job on this town and capture it?
FLINTOFF: If that's the case, it could be a big political liability for Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko because it could suggest that the Ukrainian government put more soldiers' lives at risk knowing that they were going to lose that city anyway. And it could suggest that Merkel and Hollande accepted an agreement with President Putin that they knew wasn't going to hold. But, you know, we should add, Kelly, that this isn't necessarily the end. It may be that things will calm down now that the separatists have achieved their immediate objective.
MCEVERS: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff on the taking of the town of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine. Thanks, Corey.
FLINTOFF: Thank you, Kelly.
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