In Digest, Feature Articles, Ukraine

Introduction by New Cold War.org editors, Feb. 19, 2015–The following analysis published in The Moscow Times sounds a similar theme to the message that has been delivered to soldiers of the Ukraine army by Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko of the Peoples Republic of Donetsk–that in the Minsk-2 ceasefire talks for eastern Ukraine, the government of Ukraine failed to protect the estimated 8,000 soldiers left exposed and vulnerable in the town of Debaltseve and pocket of land surrounding it.

Ukrainian soldiers in retreat from Debaltseve, photo by  Gleb Garanich, Reuters

Ukrainian soldiers in retreat from Debaltseve, photo by Gleb Garanich, Reuters

Debaltseve lies east of the demarcation agreed to at Minsk. By the time of the Minsk-2 talks, the Ukraine army and militias at Debaltseve faced imminent surrounding. But acknowledging such a situation would have placed the Ukraine government in a weaker negotiating position and embarassed it in the company of its international backers. So it denied and ignored the danger, thus sacrificing the safety of its soldiers.

Following the ceasefire agreement, the peoples republics of eastern Ukraine made an offer to the Ukrainian army at Debaltseve that its soldiers lay down their weapons in exchange for safe transport home. Instead of accepting that, the Ukraine government and army high command continued their occupation of the pocket. Many days later, they unleashed a chaotic retreat of those parts of its army and its allied, rightist militias still able to do so. As a result, many hundreds–the exact numbers are not yet know–of Ukrainian soldiers have died and were injured.

New York Times reporter Andrew Kramer is an eyewitness to the retreat of the Ukrainian army from Debaltseve during the night of Feb. 17/18, to the town of Artemivsk, located app. 50 km northwest of Debaltseve.  He told CBC Radio One’s As It Happens on February 18 that many hundreds of soldiers made it out in a very chaotic fashion. President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine has told the world that Ukraine staged a planned, orderly and successful retreat from Debaltseve. The New York Times reports him saying that seven soldiers died in the process. Soldiers told Andrew Kramer they were given ten minutes notice on Feb. 17 to pack up. Listen to the interview with Andrew Kramer here. Views maps of the area in question here. A detailed analysis of how many people and how much equipment actually escaped from Debaltseve on February 18, based on examing reporting in Ukraine media and social media, is published here on Fort Russ website. And an initial report of captured equipment is here on the same website.

Self-defense forces at Debaltseve are saying on Feb. 19 that app. 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers and militia remain in the pocket, scattered and exposed to the cold. They are waiting for Ukraine forces to surrender, where they will be cared for and treated with dignity.

Andrew Kramer reported in The New York Times on Wednesday, February 18:

By midday on Wednesday, as limping and exhausted soldiers began showing up in Ukraine-held territory, it became clear that the Ukrainian forces had suffered major losses, both in equipment and human life.

“Many trucks left, and only a few arrived”, said one soldier, who offered only his rank, sergeant, and first name, Volodomyr, as he knelt on the sidewalk smoking. “‘A third of us made it, at most.”

Paul Adams reported on BBC on Feb. 18:

All Wednesday, the road out of Debaltseve into government-held territory thundered to the sound of retreating armour – tanks and troop carriers full of exhausted, sometimes defiant soldiers.

In a bus by the side of the road, I found one Yuri slumped on his seat, across the aisle from a sleeping colleague. He said the situation had become increasingly dire and individual units had taken their own decisions to leave. They were running out of ammunition and in danger of being surrounded, he told me.

The Guardian also reports on the retreat.

Andrew Kramer wrote in another Times report, also dated Feb. 18:

The political fallout was as uncertain as the military situation. Mr. Poroshenko sought to cast the retreat in a positive light, saying in a televised statement that he had ordered the troops out of Debaltseve, a strategic transportation hub where intense fighting raged in recent days despite a cease-fire agreement signed last week in Minsk, Belarus.

Yet, his decision to fight for several days before retreating, and his earlier refusal to hand over the town during the cease-fire talks even when a Ukrainian defeat seemed inevitable, could prove contentious in Ukraine as the scale of the potential slaughter comes into focus.

“It was clear they couldn’t get a deal on Debaltseve,” Samuel Charap, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said of the Minsk talks. “The question then becomes: What the hell was Poroshenko thinking?”

* * *

Debaltseve was fatal flaw in Minsk agreement on Ukraine

By Ivan Nechepurenko, page one, The Moscow Times,  Feb. 18 2015

When the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France spent 17 hours last week negotiating an agreement aimed at stopping the fighting in eastern Ukraine and paving the way for a future fundamental settlement of the crisis, there was one key issue they failed to agree on. This was the question of the ongoing fighting around Debaltseve, a key railway junction where thousands of Ukrainian troops appeared last week to be encircled by pro-Russian insurgents.

After numerous skirmishes in the past few days that have led to hundreds of lives being lost, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced Wednesday that the Ukrainian army was retreating from the area, while continuing to insist that the army had never been encircled and that the area had been under its control. (See page 2 story, text below.)

His statements were undermined by photographs and reports flooding out of the area of Ukrainian soldiers being attacked even as they were attempting to leave. Journalists and military advisers in the area reported that the entire Debaltseve area was burning, prompting comparisons to the desperate battle for the city of Stalingrad during World War II.

Poroshenko said that 80 percent of forces had already withdrawn with their weapons and another two columns were expected to leave, according to a statement published on the presidential website.

In a conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday, Poroshenko said the failure to observe the cease-fire around Debaltseve was a “cynical attack on the Minsk agreements.”

Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, told BBC News over the weekend that “there isn’t a word about Debaltseve in the Minsk agreements. “This means that Ukraine simply betrayed the 5,000 people encircled there,” he said.

It is not yet clear how many soldiers have perished in the bitter fight for Debaltseve, but the number is in the hundreds, if not thousands, raising the question of why the issue could not have been settled in the Minsk agreement.

Impasse in Minsk

According to President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian troops were already surrounded in the Debaltseve area before the Minsk talks last week. “I spoke about this at the meeting in Minsk,” Putin told journalists during a Tuesday visit to Hungary. “I said that the surrounded troops would try to break through and that the militia, who had got the Ukrainian troops surrounded, would resist these attempts and try to keep the encirclement in place, and this would inevitably lead to further clashes,” he said.

Putin said that the Minsk agreement “offers an opportunity” for the peaceful resolution of the conflict and that it “could be cemented by a resolution by the UN Security Council.”

Andrei Kolesnikov, a long-time Kremlin pool journalist who has followed Putin closely, wrote in the Kommersant business daily on Friday that the Debaltseve issue was the main point of contention during the Minsk talks and was discussed for as long as eight hours. According to Kolesnikov, Putin said that Ukrainian army soldiers were encircled in Debaltseve and that this could threaten the cease-fire agreement, while Poroshenko denied that they were encircled.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that the demarcation line from which Ukrainian forces were due to withdraw under the Minsk agreement was set at the front line of fighting, outside of Debaltseve, meaning Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve were effectively left inside rebel territory. He echoed Putin’s words that concerns had been raised over this during the Minsk negotiations. “Poroshenko said [in Minsk] that there was no problem with Debaltseve, that there was no encirclement,” Lavrov told journalists in Moscow, Interfax reported.

A waste of time?

Alexander Khramchikhin, a military expert from the Institute for Political and Military Analysis, said that the Minsk agreement was “meaningless” because it did did not settle the Debaltseve situation. “Poroshenko could not give it up because he would have been torn apart in Kiev,” he said in a phone interview.

Khramchikhin said that the fact that Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande had not signed anything will allow them to relinquish responsibility for the breakdown of the agreement.

Vladimir Yevseyev, director of the Center of Social and Political Sciences in Moscow, said that with or without the Minsk agreements, after the Ukrainian army withdraws from Debaltseve, there will be several months of relative calm. “Both sides need a break, the Ukrainian army needs to restore its ability to fight, which will take two to three months,” Yevseyev said in a phone interview.

Yevseyev compared the Debaltseve situation with the August battle for the city of Ilovaisk, when the Ukrainian army was encircled and hundreds of its troops killed. “The new cease-fire will be similar to the one we observed after the first Minsk talks [in September], it will last until the Ukrainian army regains strength,” he said. “In order for a proper truce to be achieved there, a fully demilitarized zone has to be created with at least 20,000 UN peacemakers deployed, who will control how it is observed,” he said.

* * *

Ukraine troops retreat as embattled Debaltseve falls to rebels

By The Associated Press, in The Moscow Times, Feb. 18, 2015

ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine — After weeks of relentless fighting, the embattled Ukrainian rail hub of Debaltseve fell Wednesday to Russia-backed separatists, who hoisted a flag in triumph over the town. The Ukrainian president confirmed that he had ordered troops to pull out and the rebels reported taking hundreds of soldiers captive.

Associated Press reporters saw several dozen Ukrainian troops retreating with their weapons Wednesday morning from the town in eastern Ukraine, covered in dirt and looking exhausted. Some were driving to the nearby town of Artemivsk in trucks while several others, unshaven and visibly upset, were on foot.

One soldier spoke of heavy government losses, while another said they had not been able to get food or water because of the intense rebel shelling. A third spoke of hunkering down in bunkers for hours, unable to even go to the toilet because of the shelling. They smoked cigarettes in the frigid winter air and gratefully accepted plastic cups of tea given to them by locals.

“We’re very happy to be here,” the hungry soldier said. “We were praying all the time and already said goodbye to our lives a hundred times.”

Russian Channel One showed the rebels hoisting their flag over a high-rise building in Debaltseve. Russian state-owned television also showed images of several dozen captured Ukrainian troops being escorted along a village road by the rebels.

Semyon Semenchenko, a volunteer battalion commander and a member of the Ukrainian parliament who was highly critical of the government’s decision to retreat, said in a statement that 167 injured soldiers have been evacuated from Debaltseve. He mentioned a high death toll and said some bodies had been left behind but did not give specific numbers.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko sought to portray the withdrawal as a tactical decision that “laid shame on Russia.” He denied reports of large Ukrainian casualties and rebel claims of many soldiers captured, saying troops were leaving Debaltseve with their weapons and ammunition. He said the army had withdrawn 80 percent of its troops from the town by Wednesday morning and two more columns had yet to leave.

“Debaltseve was under our control, it was never encircled. Our troops and formations have left in an organized and planned manner,” he said in televised comments.

“The Ukrainian troops … gave a blow in the teeth to those who were trying to encircle them,” Poroshenko said at a Kiev airport as he traveled to eastern Ukraine to “shake the hands” of the soldiers leaving Debaltseve.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on a visit Tuesday to Budapest, had urged Kiev to admit defeat in the contested town, saying “the only choice” of the Ukrainian troops was to “leave behind weaponry, lay down arms and surrender.”

Despite reports of Ukrainian forces giving up the fight for Debaltseve, rebel artillery and rocket fire were still being shot at the town at regular intervals Wednesday.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg accused the separatists of refusing to respect a cease-fire agreement and urged Russia “to end support for separatists and to withdraw forces and military equipment from eastern Ukraine.” Russia has denied supplying the separatists with troops and weapons, a claim scoffed at by Western nations and Ukraine, who point to NATO satellite pictures of Russian weapons in eastern Ukraine.

The withdrawal from Debaltseve attracted fierce criticism from Ukrainian nationalist politicians. Semenchenko, the battalion commander, on Facebook accused the military command of betraying the country’s interests in Debaltseve.

“We had enough forces and means,” he said. “The problem is the command and coordination. They are as bad as can be.”

The fierce fighting around Debaltseve, which links the two major separatist cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, had raged on despite a cease-fire deal brokered by European leaders which took effect Sunday.

Some retreating troops said Wednesday they had not received any reinforcements in Debaltseve from the government and had been walking for a whole day. One Ukrainian soldier who introduced himself only as Nikolai said he was not even sure if his unit was retreating or being rotated elsewhere.

“I don’t know. Our commanders didn’t tell us whether it’s a retreat or just a rotation,” he said. “They just told us to change our positions because our unit had been staying there for quite a long time and we had sustained quite big losses.”

At a barricade outside the town of Vuhlehirsk, reporters were barred from the road into Debaltseve by a group of fighters. Some of the men identified themselves as coming from Russia’s Far East and bore the Asiatic features typical of native people there.

Viktor Ponosov, a rebel commander at the checkpoint, said Ukrainian forces appeared to have run out of ammunition and food.

“We have heard that they are calling their relatives and friends from within the encirclement and saying to them: ‘Please help us, because they are killing us and destroying us,'” Ponosov said.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France who negotiated the cease-fire deal that was supposed to take effect Sunday, were expected to talk about its implementation later Wednesday.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini accused the rebels in Debaltseve of acting “in clear violation of the cease-fire.”

“Russia and the separatists have to immediately and fully implement the commitments agreed to in Minsk, in line with yesterday’s UN Security Council resolution, starting with the respect of the cease-fire and the withdrawal of all heavy weapons,” Mogherini said in a statement Wednesday.

In Berlin, the German government also condemned rebels’ advance on Debaltseve. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert described the onslaught as “a serious strain on the [Minsk cease-fire] agreement as well as hopes for peace in eastern Ukraine.”

Elsewhere in the conflict zone, rebel leaders said they had begun withdrawing heavy weaponry Wednesday from parts of the front line where the cease-fire was holding. Basurin told Russian Rossiya 1 channel that rebels were pulling back five self-propelled guns from Olenivka, south of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, on the road to the government-controlled port of Mariupol.

“This is the first step,” Basurin said. “We’re not waiting for Ukraine to start pulling back the weaponry together with us.”

Observers from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, responsible for monitoring the cease-fire, have been blocked from Debaltseve by the rebels for days. The separatists’ Donetsk News Agency quoted rebel official Maxim Leshchenko, however, as saying the OSCE will be allowed to visit “soon.”

*****

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