This is the best outcome Putin could have hoped for. Reducing the pocket would have taken too long and would have meant
large number of (pro rebel) civilian deaths. Further fighting would also have meant the sanctions against Russia would have
started making a more visible impact.
All men gone scotfree to fight another day. All equipment in debaltseve destroyed. How is this the best outcome for Putin.
The rebels needed to hang around and stop the rescue of Ukbapzis which was not coming. The debaltseve pocket would have crumbled.
People running away from consciption in Ukraine. Unrest was rising. No money in ukraine to pay for anything. Sanctions are staying in place. The volunteer battalions themselves would have done something stupid in face of reverses in the battlefield.
Putin has just forced the pro Russian militia to abandon their military advantage second time in 6 months. He has acted dumb and stupid in trusting the west.
While I support Russia's position, the military situation is somewhat different from what you have suggested.
The rebel population base is 3 million, compared to 40 million plus for the Ukraine. The rebels only win if they inflict
casualties in a 4:1 ratio. They cannot fight a battle of attrition.
Russian analysts who understand the ground situation better, have the view that a the fighting has exhausted the rebels (who are mostly civilians) and they are barely been able to hold the Debeldsevo pocket (which they closed under heavy odds). The Ukrainian forces inside the pocket outnumber the rebels trying to close it AND there is a larger Ukrainian force trying to reopen the road into the pocket, as well as put pressure on the rebels all over the front.
The rebel economy has also ground to a halt, as most able bodied people have been mobilised.
Unlike Stalingrad, the Ukies in the pocket are not going to starve - Debaltsevo is a functioning city with Supermarkets etc.
While the Ukraining population would not be inclined to support a new offensive, they have been supportive when their soldiers are defending themselves.
Russia had its own problems because the pressure on their economy would have increased if the fighting continued and sooner or later there would have been direct evidence of Russian involvement, which would have meant a US response.
In this context, the rebels needed a quick psychological victory which has succeeded in:
- Demoralising the Ukrainians and caused their economy to tank (more than Russia's).
- Convinced Merkel and Hollande that Chocolate cannot win the war, hence the only viable solution is autonomy for the
rebel provinces - which is also what Putin wanted.
- Split NATO. France and Germany have opposed overt US involvement.
- If the last round of fighting was any indication - Ukies in the pocket will sell their equipment to the rebels,
since the volunteer units will be unemployed after the ceasefire.
Hence, the current situation puts Putin in the strongest position he would be - economically and politically, relative to the EU.