There was artillery shelling, tank fire and gun battles, retreating soldiers and reports of warships putting out to sea, but, amid all the strife, there were also signs of a truce as Ukraine’s bitter civil war moved towards a defining phase.
Speaking at the Nato summit in Wales where the conflict in his country, and Russia’s role in it, has taken centre stage, President Petro Poroshenko said he will order a ceasefire if the framework for a deal is agreed in meetings due to be held today. This was followed by leaders of two separatist people’s republics, Alexander Zakharenko of Donetsk and Igor Plotinsky of Luhansk, also declaring they were ready to follow suit.
But even as the leaders talked about possible peace, there were violent developments taking place.
Firefights were followed by an advance by the rebels towards Mariupol, a port and a vital strategic point, and government forces retreated from positions around Luhansk, which they had laid siege to for weeks. They also abandoned some checkpoints to the south of Donetsk, the main rebel centre in the east. But, at the same time, artillery rounds were fired into Donetsk, the main separatist stronghold: a barrage the previous day had left the city without water.
The rapid movements on the ground could be attempts to maximize gain before a ceasefire following the talks at the Belarus capital, Minsk. But a failure to achieve a deal leaves the military balance in favour of the rebels. Kiev and the West have repeatedly accused the Kremlin of backing them with weapons and, in their recent advance, Russian troops.
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
The capture of Mariupol would complete a land corridor to Crimea and leave Russia in control of the Azov Sea coastline. Today there were clashes to the east of the city with some artillery rounds hitting homes in outer suburbs. Ukrainian troops took up defensive positions with some commanders saying they expected an attempt to take over the city, while others dismissed the prospect of a full assault.
Serhiy Taruta, the Kiev-appointed governor of Donetsk region, who was forced to flee to Mariupol after Donetsk was taken over by separatists, stated: “We are fighting to repel the DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic), Russia and whoever else wants to come here”. But, he wanted to stress: “We are hoping for a ceasefire, talks and resolution of all unresolved issues within a sovereign Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military claimed that two Russian frigates were on the Azov Sea heading towards Mariupol, but they had not been sighted by nightfall. What was seen further along the coast a few days ago was a Ukrainian coast guard vessel on fire, with no clear indication of what had happened.
The confusion and fog of this civil war was evident among Ukrainian soldiers. Some, at a checkpoint towards Mariupol, said they had been asked to reinforce the defences of the port. But more than a few were bemused by the actions of their political masters. “We are told we must defend our land, we’ll do so gladly” said a chief sergeant. “But we also hear that there will be a deal with the terrorists which will mean that we have to withdraw from this land, which is a part of Ukraine. So we do not know what is going on. I just hope we are not asked to retreat.”
Some of his comrades, however, already appeared to be in the process of retreating. A Channel 4 television news team discovered a column heading away from Novoaidor, 60km east of Luhansk. Rebel forces from the city had, meanwhile, broken out to recapture a number of crossing points.
A number of Ukrainian positions south of Donetsk were unmanned. At one checkpoint 90km away, the prevailing feeling, again, was that troops were being let down, by their government, by the West, by Nato.
“I have been a soldier for just five months. I joined because I wanted to defend my country from the criminals sent by Putin,” said Mykhailo, a former teacher told The Independent. He had spent almost the same number of months at the Maidan protests in Kiev which brought down the government of Viktor Yanukovych.
“We were fighting for democracy in the Maidan. We had plenty of encouragement from America, England, from Germany. But where are they now when the Russians come to bring back the Soviet Union. Where’s Nato? They are having a meeting? Well they have done nothing while our government is being forced to negotiate with the criminals. Are they so foolish that they think the Russians will just stop with this part of Ukraine?”
Near the checkpoint a red-and-black flag of Right Sector, a right-wing nationalist group which has become the object of hatred among Russian-speakers, fluttered in the wind. “I do not know who that belongs to,” shrugged Mykhailo, who has the rank of Senior Soldier. “I am certainly not a member. Anyway, the right-wing parties did badly at our elections. At least there was a vote. There will be no votes if the Russians take over: that is why we need to fight.”
But for many civilians caught up in the unrelenting rounds of killings, the overwhelming craving was for peace. The walls of 64-year-old Katarina Anisimova’s home in Donetsk have large cracks from ordnance which had been landing regularly in the neighbourhood. “This house was painted by Aleksandr, this is him.” She held out a photograph of her 33-year-old son. “He was killed walking across the street by rockets, a month ago.” Who was doing the firing? “They say it is the fascists, the Right Sector, I don’t know. But we want this to stop; if they are talking they must put an end to this. Have you seen what they have done to Donetsk? They are killing this city as they killed my son.”
The bustling metropolis with a population of more than a million is now a place of emptiness. Shops, businesses, cafes and restaurants are largely shut. There are old bloodstains on the pavements outside Mrs Anisimova’s home; the small number of civilians around hurry off to their homes as dusk falls. The nights belong to the camouflaged gunmen of the separatist movement driving around to the sound of shelling.
They, too, want to continue the fight. “Why should we stop now we are winning?” Leonid Golovkin, 23, was genuinely puzzled. “They thought they were going to crush us. Now those in Kiev, the junta, just want to get time to get more weapons. That is what Poroshenko is doing now, trying to get weapons and mercenaries from Nato. Even if they agree something, it’s not going to last. Too much blood has been shed – people will want revenge.”