KYIV – Ukraine’s armed forces suffered their latest military defeat on February 18 when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced their retreat from the key railroad hub of Debaltseve, about 47 miles northeast of Donetsk after the fiercest battle of the Donbas war so far that raged since mid-January.
Rather than adhering to the February 12 ceasefire, the Russian-backed forces threw all their resources at the battle and slaughtered Ukrainian soldiers as they retreated, news reports said, citing eyewitnesses.
The battles between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces that have consumed Debaltseve resulted in much of the town (pre-war population of 25,600) being destroyed, including its police station, City Council building, train station building and the railroad junction itself, rendering it useless, said Andriy Lysenko, the spokesman for the government’s Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO).
As of February 19, the Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated 13 dead, 157 wounded, 90 captured and 82 missing, with 90 percent of the soldiers evacuated.
Yet soldiers estimated the counts to be much higher. The New York Times quoted a surviving sergeant, identified as Volodymyr, saying that “a third of us made it, at most” of the total fighting force of 2, 475 at Debaltseve, as estimated by President Petro Poroshenko in his February 18 address to the National Security and Defense Council.
That day, Mr. Poroshenko tried to project a sense of calm, order and success in assessing the events surrounding Debaltseve through February 18. In video-recorded remarks, he said that the attempt to keep control of Debaltseve and “its successes were very necessary during the negotiations, and after Minsk,” referring to the successful defense achieved the weekend of January 31-February 1.
“We were able to demonstrate to the whole world the true face of the bandits, the separatists supported by Russia, which acted as a guarantor and direct participant in the Minsk talks,” Mr. Poroshenko said. “We asserted and proved that Debaltseve was under our control and there was no encirclement,” he said, at the same acknowledging “fierce artillery fire from rapid-fire systems.”
“Our units and subunits exited as planned and organized. They exited completely with military hardware, tanks, vehicles, armored infantry carriers, self-propelled artillery units and tractors,” Mr. Poroshenko noted.
Yet news reports quoting surviving soldiers – and government military sources as well – painted a picture that contrasted sharply with what the president had described for the television networks.
Indeed, Russian-backed separatists succeeded in encircling Debaltseve on February 17 and taking control of the territory, reported the press service of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
And though the exit had been planned, it was not organized or complete, soldiers said. Instead, a column of trucks carrying more than 2,000 soldiers on the early morning of February 18 was spotted by the separatists and targeted with fire from tanks, snipers and rocket-propelled grenades, reported The New York Times. “Dead and wounded soldiers were left on the snowy fields because there were too many of them to carry once the trucks were hit,” the report said.
Numerous soldiers described having to walk (or run) at least four miles to reach safety after many trucks were wrecked crossing fields and back roads.
And while a medic quoted by The New York Times, Albert Sardaryen, said the exit was planned by the military leadership for days, the deputy commander of the 25th Kyivska Rus’ Battalion, who went by the nickname Gros, said their decision to escape the encirclement was made independent of the military command.
“There was no leadership from the Joint Chiefs. Everything was on auto-pilot and that was a big miscalculation by the sector’s command,” Gros told the 24 television network, as reported by the zn.ua news site. “Under the guidance of the commander of the 128th Brigade, we and other armies gathered and attempted to break through. The breakthrough attempt was chaotic, under constant fire. The enemy destroyed our hardware and soldiers with heavy artillery fire.”
That commander – Col. Serhiy Shaptala – was presented the Hero of Ukraine award, as announced by the press service of the Presidential Administration. Yet no mention was made of whether anyone would be held responsible for failing to give the 25th Kyivska Rus’ Battalion any instructions.
Meanwhile, the retreating soldiers of the Kryvbas Battalion said on February 18 they hadn’t eaten anything for the five days that they were encircled in a nearby village and bombarded by constant mortar fire. The village, Novohryhorivtsi, was razed, they said, as reported by hromadske.tv.
Unlike the Kyivska Rus’ Battalion, the 40th Kryvbas Battalion got the command to retreat from Debaltseve the night of February 17, commander Viktor Pochernyayev told hromadske.tv the next day. Even before the retreat, 21 battalion soldiers were killed. The battalion was fired upon as it evacuated, and the commander couldn’t confirm the number of casualties.
Rather than preserving their hardware, as Mr. Poroshenko alleged, ATO spokesman Col. Lysenko said the soldiers were ordered to destroy much of the weaponry they had “so that the enemy didn’t gain hardware in working condition.”
If there truly wasn’t a “cauldron” there, as the president claims, then he would have been present for the retreat of soldiers from Debaltseve, Yuriy Paliychuk, a Kyiv political expert, told the 1+1 TV network on February 19.
“His words more likely lie in the area of propaganda than the real shape of affairs,” he said. “He’s thinking that, in this way, he’ll be able to avoid the political consequences. But quite the opposite, he’s only exacerbating and delaying them.”
Even after the brutality, European leaders still held out hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin would use his influence to ensure his forces would uphold the February 12 ceasefire accords, said Vadym Karasyov, the director of the Institute of Global Strategies in Kyiv.
“In my view, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and [French President Francois] Holland will give the appearance that Debaltseve is an exception,” he told the vesti.ua news site. “We need to understand that the recent signing of the Minsk accords was moderated by Merkel and Hollande themselves. And they are interested in it working. If it doesn’t, it will be a failure – diplomatically and geopolitically – for Germany, France and all of Europe.”
Indeed, as late as the evening of February 17, even after Russian-backed forces had Debaltseve surrounded and forbid the entry of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius tweeted that “the ceasefire is being fully upheld.”
As of February 19, the only high-level criticism from Europe on the Debaltseve offensive came from Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, who stated clearly that the Russian-backed forces had violated the ceasefire and will face “appropriate actions if the military actions – and other negative developments that violate the Minsk accords – continue.”
Ms. Merkel told a German TV station that day that “we want for Russia to become our partner again. We would want to build the European world order with Russia, not against it.”
The National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine decided the evening of February 18 to appeal to the United Nations and the European Union to dispatch peacekeepers to the conflict line and the Ukrainian border currently under separatist control.
“The best format for us is an EU police mission,” said Mr. Poroshenko, who apparently changed his strategy after warning just four days earlier that he would impose martial law if the February 12 ceasefire accords were violated.
In response, the Russian government said such an appeal casts doubt upon the intentions of the Ukrainian government to fulfill the Minsk 2 accords, which call for the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” to form their own police forces.
“If some other schemes are being proposed here, then the question arises of whether they plan to fulfill the Minsk accords,” said Vitaliy Churkin, the permanent representative of Russia to the United Nations.