The unsatisfactory ceasefire in Ukraine was holding by a thread on Wednesday, as Ukraine said it was withdrawing troops from the eastern town of Debaltseve, a key railway hub that has been the site of ferocious fighting for the last few weeks.
Pro-Russian separatist groups continued to fight for control of the town early this week, in defiance of a ceasefire that was meant to have come into operation over the weekend.
The continued fighting infuriated Western leaders, who see it as a sign that Russian President Vladimir Putin has no intention of calling off hostilities in Ukraine.
The United Nations voted on Tuesday evening to ratify the ceasefire thrashed out last week between Mr. Putin and Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, with the backing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French president, Francois Hollande. But even as the U.N. voted, U.S. ambassador to the United States Samantha Power said it was “ironic to say the least” that Russia was officially supporting the ceasefire while “backing an all-out assault” in Ukraine.
For now, the ceasefire is officially still valid, but Mr. Poroshenko told Ms. Merkel in a telephone call Tuesday that the ongoing fighting was a “cynical attack” on the agreement.
German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, meanwhile said she will now rethink Germany’s security strategy in the light of Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine.
Germany is in the middle of drawing up a new security strategy that will be published in the form of a white paper next year.
Speaking in Berlin on Tuesday Ms. von der Leyen said that “Russia’s actions in Ukraine fundamentally change the security architecture in Europe."
She said Germany's new policy must now take into account the Kremlin’s attempt the "to establish geo-strategic power politics and military force as a form of asserting their interests.”
"The Kremlin's new policy began long before the crisis in Ukraine and will occupy us for a very very long time to come," she added.
Ms. von der Leyen’s comments show how far Russia has moved away from the West in recent years.
The last security white paper, published in 2006 refers cordially to Russia as a partner, willing and able to cooperate with the European Union and NATO.
But the mood has changed so much that Ms. von der Leyen has said that she wants Germany, which has traditionally shied away from military operations abroad, to take part in more combat missions if necessary.
“There is no pressure to act, but also no taboos against acting,” she said.
Rainer Arnold, who sits on the defense committee for Ms. Merkel’s coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats, said the new security strategy would be a chance make Germany the motor of a “security and defense policy in Europe.”
Mr. Putin meanwhile visited Hungary on Tuesday, to make it clear that while he was at odds with most of Europe, he still held sway in some countries.
He came to meet Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, with a 100-strong entourage that included Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and energy minister Alexander Nowak, as well as Alexei Miller, the chief executive of Russian energy giant Gazprom, and Sergei Kiriyenko, chief executive of nuclear power company Rosatom.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Orban have a lot to talk about. Russia currently provides about 60 percent of Hungary’s gas, and the country’s 20 year contract with Gazprom is up for renewal. Hungary’s economy is still in a fragile state and Mr. Orban cannot afford to compromise the security of his country’s energy supply: little wonder that the two men announced after the meeting that the contract would be extended.
Mr. Putin’s courting of Hungary is a calculated move. Hungary is a member of NATO and the European Union but is also a natural ally for Russia. Certainly Mr. Orban, who heads up an authoritarian, right-wing populist government, is sympathetic to Putin.
Russia is providing Hungary with a €10 billion loan to built two nuclear reactors: the contracts were awarded to Russian company Rosatom.
Meera Selva is an editor at Handelsblatt Global edition and has covered security issues from Europe and Africa. To contact the author: [email protected]. Handelsblatt correspondents Frank Specht, Klaus Stratmann and Hans-Pieter Siebenhaar contributed to this story.