It was never likely to be quiet in east Ukraine yesterday, after the breakdown of peace talks to which neither side appeared particularly committed.
It lived up to expectations, with towns on either side of the battles between rebel forces and besieged government troops suffering intensive shelling. The fiercest battles were concentrated in the town of Debaltsevo, around 34 miles to the north-east of Donetsk. It lies between the rebel-held cities of Luhansk and Donetsk – a bottleneck where rebels could soon seize victory against Kiev. Government forces have been surrounded by rebel forces to the west, south and east, ever since they regained the town in August. Now, however, newly confident rebels have made a push to totally surround the Ukrainian troops.
Debaltsevo has thus become intolerable for those poor, immobile, elderly or simply stubborn civilians who remain. Some 2,000 residents are thought to have left in the past two days, despite the town having been without water and electricity for more than a week. Residents rely on the few volunteers who dare to travel the main road into Debaltsevo for evacuation and supplies.
Government spokesman Andriy Lysenko said yesterday that recent assaults on government positions at Debaltsevo had been repelled and, for the moment at least, Kiev still was in control of the town. “The units that have arrived in support of our troops in Debaltsevo are counter-attacking and denying the enemy the opportunity to complete the encirclement,” he said.
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
1/39 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian soldiers from the 'Azov' battalion guard their base in Mariupol, Donetsk
2/39 Ukraine crisis
Children were transferred from orphanages in Donetsk and Makeyevka to escape the fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists
3/39 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian servicemen captured by pro-Russian separatists sit on the ground as they are assigned to clean a street in Snizhne in the Donetsk region
4/39 Ukraine crisis
A view inside the Youth Culture Centre destroyed by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk
5/39 Ukraine crisis
A woman holds a portrait of her dead son as she speaks during a rally in front of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office in Kiev
6/39 Ukraine crisis
A boy ascends the stairs of a bomb shelter after the shelling in the Petrovskiy district in Donetsk
7/39 Ukraine crisis
A medic looks at thirty coffins prepared for the funerals of pro-Russian rebels killed during heavy fighting at Donetsk airport, outside a Donetsk morgue
8/39 Ukraine crisis
Relatives mourn near the coffin of Mark Zverev, a taxi driver shot dead during clashes at the Donetsk airport between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russian rebels, during his funeral in the village of Grabari on the outskirts of Donetsk
9/39 Ukraine crisis
Medical workers carry a wounded pro-Russian militant on a stretcher after armed clashes occured between pro-Russian gunmen and Ukrainian troops in Slavyansk
10/39 Ukraine crisis
A member of a newly-formed pro-Russian armed group called the Russian Orthodox Army mans a barricade near Donetsk airport
11/39 Ukraine crisis
Black smoke rises from a shot down Ukrainian Army helicopter outside Slovyansk
12/39 Ukraine crisis
A woman is overcome with emotion as she looks at blood stains and damage around a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
13/39 Ukraine crisis
A local man looks at damage near a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
14/39 Ukraine crisis
A bloodstained icon of Jesus is seen among blood soaked shattered glass atop a wrecked truck near the Donetsk airport
15/39 Ukraine crisis
A family member attends a funeral for Olga Prokhorenko (60) who was killed by shrapnel after Ukrainian government forces shelled their location, during the funeral in Slovyansk
16/39 Ukraine crisis
A woman reacts after seeing the lifeless body of a man killed by shrapnel following a shelling from Ukrainian government forces in Slovyansk
17/39 Ukraine crisis
Pro-Russian militants take position on the roof of the international airport of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
18/39 Ukraine crisis
A woman embraces a pro-Russian separatist from the "East" battalion during a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk
19/39 Ukraine crisis
A Ukrainian helicopter Mi-24 gunship fires its cannons against rebels at the main terminal building of Donetsk international airport
20/39 Ukraine crisis
A pro-Russian gunman changes his position near the airport, outside Donetsk
21/39 Ukraine crisis
A pro-Russian gunman aims his weapon near the airport, outside Donetsk. Ukraine's military launched air strikes against separatists who had taken over the airport in the eastern capital of Donetsk in what appeared to be the most visible operation of the Ukrainian troops since they started a crackdown on insurgents
22/39 Ukraine crisis
Pro-Russians ride on a truck in Donetsk. A convoy of an armored personnel carrier and seven trucks carrying several hundred heavily armed men drove through central Donetsk and gunmen got out of the trucks, stood to attention and gave shots in the air in jubilation as a crowd of several thousand supporters cheered them and chanted: "Heroes!"
23/39 Ukraine crisis
An elderly woman leans against the chest of a pro-Russian gunman in Lenin square in Donetsk
24/39 Ukraine crisis
Pro-Russian militants guard a psychiatric hospital after shell explosions during the fighting between pro-Russian militants and the Ukrainian army, in Semyonovka village, outside Slavyansk
25/39 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian troops stand guard at a checkpoint on the road near the eastern city of Izum, Donetsk
26/39 Ukraine crisis
Members of the Democratic Alliance party take part in a performance in front of the French embassy in Kiev. Protesters set up a pool with the blood of animals and models of warships in a protest against French plans for the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers to the Russian Navy
27/39 Ukraine crisis
A man carries a portrait of pro-Russian activist Vadim Hudich, who was killed in a shooting incident at the head of a funeral procession in the eastern Ukranian town of Krasnoarmeisk
28/39 Ukraine crisis
A voter is seen inside a voting booth at a polling station during the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
29/39 Ukraine crisis
Members of a local election commission sort ballots as they start counting votes of referendum on the status of Luhansk region in Luhansk
30/39 Ukraine crisis
Members of a local election commission empty a ballot box as they start counting votes of the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in Donetsk
31/39 Ukraine crisis
Members of a local election commission empty ballot boxes as they start counting votes after a referendum, at a polling station in Lugansk
32/39 Ukraine crisis
Local residents watch as others give first aid to a man who was shot in the leg by Ukranian militia in the village of Krasnoarmisk. Eyewitness said that Ukranian militia tried to stop the referendum voters briefly taking the City Hall of Krasnoarmisk, where unarmed pro-Russian supporters were gathering. Reportedly the Ukranian militia came out out the building and started shooting at the people, killing at least one man and leaving at least two others injured
33/39 Ukraine crisis
Members of a local election commission count votes after a referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members at a polling station in Donetsk
34/39 Ukraine crisis
Voters visit a polling station to take part in the referendum on the status of Donetsk
35/39 Ukraine crisis
An Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) with a Russian flag drives through the center of Slaviansk during the day of referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members in Slavyansk
36/39 Ukraine crisis
A statue of Lenin is placed in front of a pro-Russian barricade on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk
37/39 Ukraine crisis
A feamle veteran (C) sings during 'Victory Day' celebrations in Donetsk
38/39 Ukraine crisis
People stand near the burning Mariupol police station
39/39 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian soldiers stand guard beside an armoured personnel carrier at a checkpoint in Mariupol. Ukrainian forces seized the rebel-held city hall in the eastern port city of Mariupol, driving out pro-Russian activists, then withdrew, making no attempt to hold onto the building
Separatist fighters burst through Ukrainian lines last week in the village of Vuhlehirsk on the road west of Debaltsevo, gaining access to a ridge overlooking the highway from the town.
Ukrainian tanks were seen yesterday shooting from open fields at the treeline on that ridge. Rows of trenches near a bridge nine miles to the north of Debaltsevo yesterday suggested that Kiev may have a fallback position to surrender the town.
The fighting came as Russian-backed rebel leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko introduced a general mobilisation of citizens of conscription age within his “Donetsk People’s Republic”. “We intend to enlist enough more men so that our army reaches 100,000,” he announced. The first wave would be voluntary, he continued, but might become mandatory should numbers prove insufficient.
If implemented, the mobilisation would represent a significant increase in the rebel’s fighting potential. Commanders have suggested to The Independent that the current strength of both Luhansk and Donetsk rebels is comparable to the Ukrainian side.
Mr Zakharchenko’s announcement is likely to have two immediate effects: increased migration of conscription age men from the Donetsk region; and a lower take-up for Ukraine’s own mobilisation drive. Many of Mr Zakharchenko’s recent announcements appeared to have been designed to discourage young Ukrainians from taking up the draft. Just a week ago, he claimed that rebels would no longer be taking any prisoners in an apparent attempt to instil fear into wavering individuals.
The Ukrainian mobilisation wave, meanwhile, has not been going well. Government sources revealed that only 10 per cent of 75,000 have responded to the draft, the lowest number in any of the previous mobilisation. Yesterday, fierce protests broke out in the capital, Kiev, with fighters from the Aydar Ukrainian volunteer battalion burning tyres at the entrance to the Ukrainian Defence Ministry during demonstrations against the possible disbandment of their battalion.
The first month of 2015 has been an emotional and turbulent one for Ukraine, with rebels gaining an important psychological victory at Donetsk airport, and by pushing the territorial demarcation lines elsewhere.
Speaking to The Independent, “Shiba”, a deputy commander of a battalion within the Vostok brigade, confirmed that the rebels planned to drive government forces hard beyond the edge of Donetsk and Luhansk administrative regions, and that plans existed for them to do so. “The order to fully engage has not yet been received,” he warned.
Elsewhere, the rebel stronghold of Donetsk came under sustained shelling again. It was estimated that 15 civilians had been killed over the weekend. Kiev said five soldiers had died within 24 hours in the eastern regions.
Even as Vladimir Putin described his “extreme concern” at events in the east yesterday, Barack Obama appeared to step closer to providing arms to Kiev. A US military official told the Associated Press that Washington was considering sending defensive lethal aid, potentially including anti-tank missiles and armoured vehicles.
The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, reiterated her opposition to arming Ukraine. “It is my firm belief that this conflict cannot be solved militarily,” Ms Merkel said following a meeting with her Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, in Budapest.