The thud of mortar and plumes of smoke rising from the fields beyond Mironovsky today suggested that Ukraine’s latest ceasefire, meant to have taken effect just after midnight on Saturday, had at best got off to a shaky start.
While artillery fell silent across much of the conflict zone, here, as in other villages around the strategic battle for Debaltseve, there was only limited respite.
The mortar attack from rebel-held territory, witnessed by The Independent, was directed against Ukrainian positions, with the most likely aim being to sever an eastern supply route that serves the besieged government-held town of Debaltseve, 10 miles away. The main road that leads into Debaltseve was already effectively blocked, with Russian-backed forces maintaining their grip at Logvinove, four miles further along the road. On Sunday, the alternative eastern supply route was also under heavy bombardment.
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
“Chup”, a Ukrainian officer serving at the last checkpoint before Logvinove, laughed at the suggestion of a “ceasefire”. He says that the Ukrainians had been subjected to an “onslaught” from the hour the Presidents gave their final press conferences in Minsk. While he acknowledged that things had been quieter since the official start of the ceasefire at midnight, he said the Ukrainian side had nonetheless recorded several rounds of incoming mortars and Grad rockets, from 6am onwards. “You see for yourselves that we are some way off a ceasefire”, he said.
Soldiers at the checkpoint claimed the Ukrainians had not responded to the ceasefire breach, but The Independent observed outgoing rounds about 30 minutes later.
At least six Ukrainian officers were injured by Sunday’s rebel attacks, all of them being taken for treatment to a staging hospital in nearby Artemivsk. These were the luckier ones; some 40 other injured Ukrainian soldiers had been effectively trapped in Debaltseve for days, until medical officers of the 55th battalion were finally able to break through and evacuate them.
Sergei Nikolaevich, one of the medics involved in the operation, said that the group had been unable to evacuate all of the injured, and had been forced to abandon heavily decomposed corpses. He described how they had driven high trucks through rivers and over fields, delivering supplies and bringing the wounded out. “We take food and munitions that way, and return with the injured”, he said. Meanwhile, three injured soldiers reached Ukrainian positions on foot, having given up hope that the team would ever arrive.
Nikolaevich’s focus was the soldiers, but he admitted that more than 1,000 civilians remained trapped in Debaltseve. “We see grannies walking around, disoriented, but we don’t know what to do with them. Where can we take them?” he said.
Officials of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is meant to observe the ceasefire under the terms of the accord, reported that rebels had denied their monitors access to Debaltseve and Logvinove. They confirmed that firing continued in the town, but said that elsewhere in eastern Ukraine the ceasefire had otherwise been “largely observed”. It appears that the Russian-backed rebels are intent on fully encircling the Ukrainian army units in Debaltseve and will not stop fighting until the town falls into their hands.
“Chup” said he feared a repeat of the rebel action in Ilovaisk in late August, when he says Russian army units joined separatist forces to block entry and exit routes, then ambushed the remaining Ukrainians, resulting in several hundred being killed.
The officer said he was certain Russian forces were also engaged in the Debaltseve battles. “If you show me soldiers just with mortars, rifles and so on, I can believe they are separatists. But I can be sure that it isn’t separatists manning stations, or launching Smerch and Uragan rockets.”
The “rebel” artillery had been hitting its targets with deadly accuracy “that takes years of professional training”, he said. The US State Department said satellite images offer “credible pieces of evidence” that the Russian military has deployed multiple rocket launchers around Debaltseve to shell Ukrainian forces.