A few dozen people of various ages and in various uniforms are milling around outside the gates of Military Base No A-2730 in Artemivsk, a city in the Donetsk region. They are among the Ukrainian troops who have withdrawn from Debaltseve, the biggest flashpoint in Donbas’ brutal conflict for the last month.
The pullback operation began in the early morning of 18 February, with Ukrainian troops leaving the town in small groups and heading for Artemivsk, some 50km away. Many had to fight their way through and, according to figures released by the Ukrainian General Staff, 13 were killed, 150 were wounded and 90 were taken prisoner. Those who managed to get through are now crowding the little shops opposite the base, stocking up to celebrate their escape, and telling me how they ‘made it through.’
‘We had to go through woods riddled with tripwires.’
‘I said, “We need to go left”, but we went right and ran into separatists who shot at us.’
‘We brought food supplies in and took the dead bodies out. There was supposed to be a truce, but they were hammering us with Grad rocket fire!’
A Ukrainian talk damaged and abandoned in the retreat from Debaltseve. (c) RIA Novosti/Mikhail Voskresenskiy.
‘There was supposed to be a truce, but they were hammering us with Grad rocket fire!’
Many of those who got out had spent the last four months in dug-outs, defending the city limits of Debaltseve, the most important strategic point in eastern Ukraine. The Kharkiv-Rostov highway runs through the city, which also has the largest railway hub in Ukraine’s eastern rustbelt, through which coal is transported from the Donbas mines. And, even more crucially, the road linking Donetsk and Luhansk, the capitals of the two self-styled peoples’ republics, also runs through Debaltseve.
Bridgehead – or kettle?
Separatist forces made an attempt to occupy Debaltseve as far back as last May. Soon after the referendum on Crimea’s status, pro-Russian Cossacks under the command of Ataman Nikolai Kozitsyn entered the city; the municipal website explained the presence of these exotic figures in their lambskin caps as being necessary for their ‘support in maintaining law and order, preventing crime and defending the population at this time of instability in Ukraine.’ Mayor Volodymyr Protsenko held a joint press conference with the Cossack leader. This military/administrative alliance lasted until mid-July, but when Kyiv’s forces began rolling back the armies of the unrecognised republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, the Cossacks withdrew, and the mayor faked his own abduction and disappeared into hiding.
Ukrainian forces then entered the city and built solid fortifications around this important population centre. Debaltseve began to be referred to as a bridgehead from which to launch a decisive strike that would split the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic (DNR) in two and cut its main forces off from Luhansk. It would also cut them off from the Russian border, through which they were receiving reinforcements in the form of volunteers, financial support and – it is claimed – military hardware. But a successful Ukrainian advance was hampered first by vigorous resistance on the part of the DNR forces in the Snizhne area, and then by the Malaysia Airlines disaster – the Boeing 777 was shot down in an area of heavy fighting; and the global community insisted that hostilities be suspended.
In January 2015, separatist fighters once again moved on Debaltseve – Luhansk divisions on one side, Donetsk divisions on the other, with the aim of cutting off the pocket of Ukrainian-held land around the city from the surrounding area. On 11 February the unrecognised republics announced that they had completed the ‘kettling’ of Debaltseve and, lacking reinforcements, the besieged Ukrainian units were forced to withdraw.
Today, tired and fed up, the soldiers are drinking vodka opposite the Artemivsk base. They don’t want to talk to reporters: ‘You’re a journalist? Why aren’t you in Debaltseve?’
‘They conceded everything – did you see? What was it all for, us getting killed there – to make Poroshenko a billionaire?’
The encirclement of Debaltseve was one of the main issues at the talks in Minsk. Vladimir Putin told his Ukrainian counterpart that the Ukrainian troops would try to get out, while the separatists would try to stop them, but Poroshenko insisted that ‘there was no kettle’ ; and the two sides spent several hours arguing about it without reaching an agreement. So there was no truce in the Debaltseve area, which threatened to break up the Minsk talks themselves.
The real situation
Around Debaltseve the separatist militias, in early January, were already talking about ‘kettling’, but in Kyiv the preferred term was ‘the Debaltseve salient’, implying that it was not completely surrounded; and the most optimistic commentators were still referring to the city as the bridgehead from which the Ukrainian army would at any moment launch an offensive on the separatist-held territory.
On 11 February the main arterial road supplying the city was cut off.
For most of the time, Debaltseve was connected with the Kyiv-held area by one road, the Artimivsk-Debaltseve stretch of the Kharkiv-Rostov highway, which by late January had become known as ‘the road of life’. Along it, military hardware, troop reinforcements and humanitarian aid for the civilian population of Debaltseve passed in one direction, and emergencies ministry buses carrying refugees from the besieged city, in the other. Then, on 11 February, DNR forces seized Lohvynove, a village on the highway 8km from Debaltseve, and the main arterial road supplying the city was cut off.
‘There are also minor roads’, General Aleksandr Rozmanin, who heads the Ukrainian delegation to the Joint Russo-Ukrainian Centre for Ceasefire Monitoring, told me tersely. The deputy commander of the ‘Donbas’ battalion, codename Svat (‘matchmaker’), also said that supplies could still reach their comrades along dirt roads. Svat and his ‘Donbas’ volunteers were deployed about 20km from Debaltseve, aiding the Ukrainian army’s attempt to storm Lohvynove and wrest it back from the separatists.
Ukrainian Troops in the Debaltseve salient in February 2015. Image via YouTube.
However, according to the Ukrainian soldiers who had managed to escape from Debaltseve, the separatist militias were nearer the truth. One of them, Yury, said that he had entered the city as part of a supply convoy on 10 February. They were supposed to leave again the next day, but that was the day the road was cut off, and the separatists began to shoot at the convoy. Several trucks were put out of action and some of his fellow soldiers killed; and he spent the next eight days hiding in a trench as heavy firing continued around him.
Yury spent eight days hiding in a trench as heavy firing continued around him.
The declaration of a ‘silence regime’ didn’t have much effect either: the volleys from the multiple rocket launcher systems around the Artimivsk-Debaltseve road died away at midnight on 15 February ,but were renewed by the next morning: in the small town of Myronivsky, 20km from Debaltseve, I saw exchanges of artillery fire.
In the end, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, who at the Minsk talks had refused to recognise that Debaltseve was surrounded, ordered a withdrawal of troops under a hail of gunfire from the separatist forces. He described the retreat as a ‘planned and organised operation’ and ‘decisive proof of the combat capability of our troops and the military efficiency of their commanders.’
After his troops had withdrawn from Debaltseve, Poroshenko held a meeting of Ukraine’s security council where he proposed asking a UN peacekeeping force into the conflict zone. For the moment, however, the appearance of ‘blue helmets’ in the Donbas seems highly unlikely: their deployment requires the agreement of both sides in the conflict, and the DNR leadership has so far opposed the idea.
Losing the battle, losing the peace
Despite the formal breach of the Minsk agreement, the Debaltseve debacle has in fact brought the Donbas closer to peace. Reports from the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘Peoples’ Republics’ say that heavy equipment is being withdrawn. The fighting is still going on, but now it is in the area of Myronivsky and Luhanske, the small towns near Debaltseve where the effective demarcation line runs, between the two sides. Past Myronivsky, the towns of Luhanske and Soledar stand on a reservoir that could form a natural barrier between the two armies, and further along the road is some high ground, with Ukrainian army fortified zones and artillery emplacements that would require too much effort for the separatist forces to seize (and which is hardly possible given international pressure).
After Debaltseve Petro Poroshenko faces a political dilemma.
On the other hand, after Debaltseve, Petro Poroshenko faces a political dilemma. In late January, Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the notorious ultranationalist party Right Sector, declared that the commanders of Ukraine’s volunteer battalions were planning to create a ‘parallel general staff’ to replace the country’s ‘ineffective military leadership’; and after the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Debaltseve the heads of 17 battalions signed a memorandum to this effect in Dnipropetrovsk, the home city of billionaire Ihor Kolomoiskiy (who is financing this extra-military development), and which will be home to the new general staff as well.
The creation of this parallel body has the support of not only Right Sector but also elements within the Krivbas, Sicheslav, and Aidar volunteer battalions; the Automaidan civic movement, and the ‘Dignity and Will’ organisation of Afghan War veterans. However, nine commanders of other battalions have jointly announced that they do not support the initiative.
‘This is not a military coup’, promises Donbas Battalion commander Semen Semenchenko. ‘We shall work in parallel with the official general staff, coordinating the activity of the volunteer battalions and providing an alternative source of information for the president.’ The memorandum states, however, that the new body will only work with the official general staff if Viktor Muzhenko, its commander-in-chief, is dismissed. And it also states that, ‘there will be no negotiations with the enemy, and we must win back territory with guns in our hands.’
While the volunteer battalion commanders seize the initiative from the Ukrainian armed forces, the country’s rulers are in talks with various states around the world about the delivery of lethal technology to Ukraine – one argument against it, for those who do not agree, being that this military hardware might fall in to the hands of these ‘private armies’. But even if these talks fail, it is clear that the ‘war party’ in Kyiv is gaining strength.