Some of the soldiers were agitated, others euphoric. Shouts of “Glory to Ukraine” went up, and victory salutes were brandished. Yet their posturing seemed hollow, given the operation they were engaged in: Ukraine’s withdrawal from Debaltseve, after days of fighting against Russian-backed rebels in the strategic town.
The vehicles came thick and fast. Tanks, armoured cars, trucks, school buses, ambulances — a lot of ambulances; the evacuation used whatever transport the military could get its hands on. Some of the soldiers made the last few miles on foot.
As outgoing missiles roared from the nearby fields, one soldier was flung from an armoured vehicle that had been travelling too fast. He was knocked unconscious and seriously injured, while his comrades had little patience with the prying eyes of the media that gathered. “Take your f***ing cameras 20 miles up the road,” said one, pointing towards Debalsteve.
“Tell Putin he’s a dick, and Poroshenko that he’s his used condom,” shouted another soldier. Few had positive words for their political or military leaders.
Last week’s Minsk agreements promised a ceasefire, but offered no resolution to the standoff at Debaltseve, a transport hub in the east of Ukraine where government forces were partly surrounded. From almost the moment the deal was signed, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted “rebel forces” had undertaken a “defensive encirclement operation” of the town. Until today, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko insisted it remained under Ukrainian control. That Putin’s assessment was closer to the truth – but both sides were ready for the fight – raises questions as to how realistic a ceasefire was ever likely to be.
Soldiers retreating from Debaltseve told The Independent that the railway town had been effectively encircled for 10 days, ever since rebel forces took the village of Lohvinove, four miles north of the town.
From this point the main highway out of Debaltseve became impassable. It was not impossible to break through enemy lines along alternative country roads, the soldiers said, but such an operation was perilous. On Monday, only one vehicle from six made it through to the other side. Not long after the battle, rebel forces encircled the main military headquarters to the south side of the town.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
A Ukrainian communications officer with the nom-de-guerre of “Iron”, told The Independent his group of perhaps 50 soldiers had been surrounded. “We still had munitions, but we were relieved when the order came through to withdraw,” he said. Fighting had been relentless throughout the period of the supposed ceasefire, he said.
After destroying 90 per cent of the military equipment at the base, the soldiers began leaving Debaltseve just after midnight on Tuesday evening. Iron’s group eventually reached Artemivsk, the next town north, at 9am the next day, having survived two ambushes. They broke through with “minimal casualties.”
Other units do not seem to have been as lucky. Speaking anonymously, an officer of the Krivbas battalion said that he estimated 10 per cent of the 400-strong battalion had been killed in the retreat, with a further 10 per cent taken captive. Their convoy came under mortar shelling, he said. Part of it was destroyed, and many of the soldiers made their way by running and crawling through mine fields.
“You forget about the mines when you’re being shot at,” said Klim Kaznachey, a soldier. Having survived a similar encirclement in Ilovaisk last August, he had critical words for military commanders, complaining that a lack of planning that left soldiers surrounded and vulnerable. “Both situations were idiotic, if we carry on like this we will lose Ukraine,” he said.
Medics at a holding hospital in Artemvisk were guarded about the numbers of wounded and killed, claiming such information was classified. One suggested between 80 and 100 wounded soldiers arrived on Wednesday.
The Independent saw nine wooden coffins and four body bags lying outside the local morgue. Between two to five thousand civilians remain in Debaltseve, unable or unwilling to leave. The town itself is lifeless: livestock roam the central streets and people rarely leave underground bomb shelters, some of them apparently running out of water. Humanitarian workers have been unable to access the town for over a week. Volunteer workers Diana Makarova and Natalya Voronkova, who had until recently organised much of the evacuation of Debaltseve, said they had received hundreds of desperate requests from the town and surrounding villages.
The volunteers said military activity had prevented them from helping for the last 10 days. “One day we received a text from a woman asking us to save her mother and grandmother; two days later came another message, asking for help to bury her mother, and save her grandmother”, said Ms Voronkova. “Shelling doesn’t scare me, but this impotence is the most frightening feeling in the world.”Reuse content