Ukraine Live Day 364: Reports from Inside the Debaltsevo Kettle: ‘There is No Ceasefire Here’

February 16, 2015
At the front line in Debaltsevo. February 15, 2015. Photo by Max Avdeev.

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International Concern Mounting As Attacks on Debaltsevo Escalate

The Guardian’s Alex Luhn has filed a new report, “Ukraine ceasefire in tatters as clashes escalate in east.”

Luhn reports:

Debaltseve has been virtually cut off from the rest of the Ukrainian forces. A group of Ukrainian soldiers who broke out of Debaltseve on Sunday told the Guardian their column of seven trucks had come under heavy fire from rebel positions despite the ceasefire, and two of thevehicles were destroyed. They said that more than 60% of the city has been ruined by near-constant fires and shelling, and Kiev’s troops are trapped there with dwindling ammunition and supplies.

Ambulance drivers who have been trying to make it through to Debaltseve said both the highway connecting it to the main Ukrainian lines and the nearby fields have been mined, and rebel guns shoot at any vehicles moving across the 10-mile stretch of no man’s land. It has been impossible to use the highway since 8 February, said a national guard medic, Alla Neschadym, whose son Oleg is fighting in Debaltseve.

The national guard in Artemivsk has only four ambulances after four were destroyed by shelling and two were hit by mines in recent weeks, Neschadym said. Thousands of Ukrainian troops remain pinned down in the city, she added.

Meanwhile, the OSCE reports that Russian-backed rebels have prevented international monitors from reaching the embattled city, and the leaders of Germany and France, who, helped negotiate the latest ceasefire in Minsk, are calling on the OSCE to be provided with “free access” to the city, as is Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

As we’ve pointed out, though, the Russian-supported forces do not believe that fighting in Debaltsevo is a violation of the Minsk agreement because they believe that, according to that agreement, Debaltsevo is theirs.

So far our analysis of the Minsk agreement, posted just hours after the deal was signed last week, is proving prescient.

James Miller
Is The Ceasefire ‘Largely Holding’? Heavy Fighting Reported In Some Areas

In a statement issued last night, February 15, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that the ceasefire was largely holding. The UN News Centre reports:

“The Secretary-General notes that the cease-fire appears to be largely holding, giving a desperately needed respite to civilians trapped in the area and contributing to a swift and peaceful resolution of the conflict,” the statement stressed.

However, it goes on to note the UN chief’s “serious concern” over reports of continued instances of hostilities including in Debaltseve and reiterates his call for all parties to abide by the cease-fire “without exception.”

“The Secretary-General reminds all of the significance of the cease-fire, which forms the basis for the broader implementation of the Minsk accords and to restore peace and stability to Ukraine,” the statement concludes.

The OSCE has just sent this tweet suggesting that they agree with Moon’s assessment:

That report was issued at 18:00 local time yesterday. According to that report a Major General in the Russian Federation Armed Forces said that the ceasefire was holding. However the OSCE report suggests that there have been nearly 120 ceasefire violations:

The SMM visited Soledar (77km north of Donetsk, government-controlled), where the JCCC headquarters (HQ) is currently temporarily located. Officers from the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Russian Federation Armed Forces, and members of the “DPR” and “Lugansk People’s Republic” (“LPR”) were present. According to the JCCC HQ log, the number of ceasefire violations for the 08:00-00:00hrs period on 14 February was 101. Almost all violations involved Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS), artillery and mortars and were concentrated around Debaltseve and Donetsk airport. From 00:00-08:00hrs on 15 February there were 15 violations, all in Debaltseve or in Chornukhyne (Luhansk region, 8km east of Debaltseve, area of heavy fighting). The Russian Federation Armed Forces Major General, Representative of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation to the JCCC, considered the ceasefire to be holding, given the significant decrease in military incidents. The Ukrainian Armed Forces Major General, Head of the Ukrainian side to the JCCC said the effectiveness of the ceasefire would only be apparent when they could travel to Debaltseve. The SMM was given a draft copy of the Ukrainian Armed Forces proposal for a JCCC Implementation Plan. This plan will be discussed with Russian Federation Armed Forces JCCC representatives, and when a final draft is agreed, it will be sent to the General Staff of both the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Russian Federation Armed Forces.

Other excerpts of the report suggest that civilians have been hit by rockets, possible Russian supply vehicles have been spotted on the move, and other violations were still occurring. Some excerpts:

On 14 February, the SMM spoke separately to an official from the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, Ukrainian Armed Forces personnel and local police about shelling in Artemivsk (40km north of Donetsk, government-controlled) that happened the previous day. According to all interlocutors, a seven-year old boy was killed when a kindergarten was struck by a shell. A second person was also killed and another six were injured. The SMM were told by these interlocutors that houses, a factory and a school were damaged. The SMM saw several craters, unexploded ordnance (UXOs) and shrapnel consistent with a Smerch rocket (BM-30). The SMM also saw demining personnel working on unexploded cluster sub-munitions found in the ground. Three craters were analysed by the SMM and the direction of fire was established to have been from the south-east of Artemivsk.

On a road between the villages of Stepanivka and Dmitrivka, (87km east of Donetsk, “DPR”-controlled), the SMM passed three civilian propane trucks with white Russian registration plates, travelling west with a “DPR” emergency service escort. Later, the SMM located a newly bulldozed road heading south-east from the village of Dibrivka (95km east of Donetsk, “DPR”-controlled) that turned east towards “LPR”-controlled territory. On this road the SMM saw two civilian gasoline/diesel tankers (one without registration plates; one with Ukrainian plates) accompanied by a military-style jeep containing uniformed persons being driven south-east from Dibrivka…

n Luhansk city on 15 February, the SMM observed the arrival of the fourteenth humanitarian aid shipment from the Russian Federation. The SMM witnessed the arrival of 19 trucks at two locations (12 at a former confectionery factory and seven at the bread factory). The SMM were refused entrance by guards at the bread factory, but were given access to the confectionery factory to see the unloading and warehousing of numerous packages. Those who unloaded the goods stated that everything they offloaded was foodstuffs. According to them, medical aid and construction materials were delivered to other locations in Luhansk.

On the other hand the OSCE SMM also encountered areas where no ceasefire violations had taken place. An example:

On 15 February, at a checkpoint close to the village of Smile (30km west of Luhansk, “LPR”-controlled) “LPR” members told the SMM that they had received orders from their commander to comply with the ceasefire. They told the SMM that onward travel towards Lysychansk should be avoided due to safety reasons. Later, in the town of Frunze (46km north-west of Luhansk, “LPR”-controlled), the commander of a checkpoint told SMM that during the night of 14-15 February there was no shelling.

What the Ukrainian military is reporting, however, does not sound like a ceasefire. Here are some key excerpts from today’s briefing from the National Security and Defense Council:

This morning we carried two reports from Debaltsevo and one from Shirokeno, near Mariupol, which suggest that the ceasefire is being regularly violated in some areas. According to CNN, Dmytro Chalov, a spokesman for a sector of the Ukrainian army, is reporting that mortar fire has hit areas around Mariupol.

Alex Thomson, of the UK’s Channel 4 News, is in the area of Donetsk airport, and he’s not masking his own opinion on whether the ceasefire is taking hold:

James Miller
DNR Says They Will Only Withdraw Artillery From Line Of Contact If Ukraine Does So Simultaneously

Russia’s Interfax news agency reports that the deputy military commander of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (DNR), Eduard Basurin, has told reporters that the Russian-backed separatists will only withdraw their heavy weaponry from the line of contact, in accordance with the recent Minsk agreement, if Ukrainian forces do so simultaneously.

The Interpreter translates:

“The withdrawal of heavy weaponry must be conducted simultaneously by the Ukrainian side. If they do not withdraw, then neither will we. In those areas, where it is calm and shots are not fired, we will commence withdrawing. But the withdrawal must be simultaneous.”

— Pierre Vaux

Fighting In Shirokino, Near Mariupol

Ukrainian forces, including Azov regiment and Donbass Battalion volunteer fighters, are currently fighting in the town of Shirokino (Shirokyne), on the Azov Sea coast, east of Mariupol.

Having pushed through to the town last week, Ukrainian forces are now being met by shelling and a counter-attack by Russian-backed forces.

Ukrainska Pravda reports that the Ukrainian military headquarters in Mariupol has claimed that five Azov fighters were killed yesterday. Also 22 Ukrainian soldiers were wounded, 18 of them from Azov, four from the army. 

The headquarters stated that the Ukrainian positions had come under fire from tanks. Attacks continued through the night, with mortar shelling reported this morning.

Semyon Semyonchenko, the commander of the Donbass Battalion, wrote on his Facebook page at 7:58 GMT that a battle was under way in the town.

The Interpreter translates:

Ceasefire forever! In Shirokino, outside Mariupol, where a Donbass Battalion unit is manning defences, an infantry battle is under way, enemy artillery is at work, mortars, the enemy is bringing up reinforcements. Our guys are putting up fierce defence.

Semyonchenko posted an update at 11:01 GMT:

The mortar shelling of Shirokino, outside Mariupol, continues. A unit from the Donbass Battalion holding out in Shirokino is taking losses. Three people have been wounded today, all have been evacuated to hospital in Mariupol. From the moment of the ceasefire the Donbass Battalion has lost three dead and nine wounded. Our artillery is silent.

Footage uploaded this morning by an Azov regiment member shows Ukrainian fighters on the south-western fringes of Shirokino firing across the town. 

We can verify the location here on Google Earth by the distinctive shape of the building from which the soldiers are firing an automatic grenade launcher.

There is also a small church visible from the tanks firing position. A picture of the church found on Panoramio helps to geolocate it.


Here is the landscape as seen in Google Earth:


This means that Russian-backed forces have re-entered Shirokino itself.

— Pierre Vaux

EU Issues New Sanctions Lists Against 19 Russians and Militants in Ukraine; Kobzon, Givi, Motorola Included

The European Union has gone ahead with new sanctions again Russia, Reuters reports.

These include Josif Kobzon, 77, a Russian crooner and member of the State Duma because he visited the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic and made statements supporting the separatists,” said the EU.

Also named were deputy defense ministers — but not Sergei Shoigu, minister of defense.

Interfax published the list of 19 persons and  and 9 organizations and military units of the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic of Donetsk” and “People’s Republic of Lugansk”.

From Russia:

Valery Rashkin, deputy of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation
Arkady Bakhmin, deputy minister of defense
Anatoly Antonov, deputy minister of defense
Andrei Kartapolov, head of the main operations division and deputy head of the general staff of the RF Armed Forces

From Southeast Ukraine:

Cossacks [of the DNR], Sparta, Somali, Zarya, Prizrak, Oplot, Kalmius, and Smert’ battalions and the Novorossiya movement.

Eduard Basurin, deputy commander of the DNR defense ministry.
Pavel Dremov, first Cossack regiment
Aleksey Milchakov, Rusich unit
Arseny Pavlov (“Motorola”), Sparta Battalion
Mikhail Tolstykh (“Givi”), Somalia Battalion
Aleksandr Shubin, LNR justice minister
Serge Litvin, deputy head of the LNR council of ministers
Ekaterina Filippova, DNR minister of budget policy
Aleksandr Timofeyev, LNR minister of budget policy
Yevgeny Manuilov, DNR minister of communications
Viktor Yatsenko, DNR minister of communications
Olga Besedina, LNR minister of economic development and trade
Zaur Ismailov, acting prosecutor general of the LNF

Report on the 40th Battalion, inside Debaltsevo Kettle

Nikolai Kolesnik, advisor to Dnepropetrovsk Governor Ihor Kolomoyskyi and patron of the 40th Battalion (known as “Krivbass” as it is from Krivoy Rog), had this report posted 15 minutes ago on his Facebook page:

The Interpreter has a translation:

I report: All night, the enemy’s artillery was firing on the strongholds heavily, there was an assortment, Grads, mortars, BMPs. There were tank battles, only it wasn’t our artillery that drove them back (as the Chief of Staff lies on TV), they just shot up their ammunition and retreated There was no help, but we hope it will come. The strongholds are surrounded, nearby is a growing accumulation of vehicles and personnel on the enemy’s side, this can be determined visually.

There is psychological pressure. There is also great doubt that the General Staff has the coordinates of our strongholds (today, they were finding them out from the former chief of staff, f**k). The entire report by the speakers of the Defense Ministry, General Staff and ATO regarding the situation with the Krivbass is total fantasy, giving out the wish for the reality. Of course, shit, it’s not being a big boss. Especially cool to hear was the bit about the working of our artillery and the delivery of everything that was needed. It is too bad I can’t say more on an open access. When they signed the agreement in Minsk, they simply didn’t take into account that in Debaltsevo, our guys are standing, and they didn’t take into account that Muzhenko told Poroshenko: “everything is f**king under control shit. We’ve got tons of people we’ll tear Putin a new one, hurrah!” (Yes the picture of 00.00 was cool.)

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Reports from Inside the Debaltsevo Kettle: ‘There is No Ceasefire Here’
Nelli Verner of Levy Bereg (Left Bank) has filed a report this morning at 8:16 am Kiev time on the status of the Ukrainian forces surrounded by Russian-
backed separatists in Debaltsevo. The following summary and excerpts are translated by The Interpreter:

Yury Sinkovsky, deputy commander of the 40th Battalion, known as “Krivbass” is urging that the Ukrainian Armed forces send reinforcements to them or else help them come out of the kettle.

“Urgent, the 40th needs help. Especially the village of Oktyabrskoye, especially Kopye and Moysha (call-signs). They know there. They just say ‘Yes, help is on the way,’ but the guys don’t see it. They are almost in hand-to-hand combat there, street fighting has broken out.

Measures must immediately be taken for the 40th, for Debaltsevo. Please, if there is such a opportunity, sound it right now and immediately, I’m knocking on all the doors to help the guys.”

LB was able to reach one of the fighters at a stronghold inside the kettle.

“They [militants] have moved right in rudely, making themselves at home. There is no shooting, they offer us to give up our arms. We’re already calling everybody so that they simply get us out of here.”

Some of these areas once held by Ukrainian forces within the kettle fell to
the militants yesterday, says LB. Yesterday, Russian-backed fighters issued an ultimatum: give up the positions by 23:00, and come out without arms. Otherwise, they would be destroyed. The ATO headquarters confirmed this ultimatum.

But Andrei Lysenko, spokesman for the ATO, said that while an ultimatum was given, he didn’t confirm other reports:

“Our soldiers are holding their positions. There is an opportunity to deliver ammunition and food to these positions. Using the ceasefire, the militants are approaching our positions with white flags and offering us to give up arms, that is, they are placing psychological pressure on our soldiers. However, the situation there is completely manageable, no one is intending to leave. There is ammunition. And in the event of attack, our soldiers are prepared to fend it off. There are communications, the commander of the battalion is in place, all the divisions are in place.”

He reiterated that the Russian-backed fighters were trying to put psychological pressure on the soldiers, but their discipline was maintained and no one was going to leave their position or drop their arms.

Meanwhile, the OSCE was blocked from coming to observe the situation, and Lysenko was asked when it would come. He said, “We can’t order the OSCE around, it is an independent organization.”

The wife of one soldier who was able to make contact with her husband did confirm that at least one Ukrainian position received food and ammunition.

Fifteen soldiers were reported dead as of 20:30 on February 15.

At 22:30, according to Ukrainska Pravda, Vladislav Seleznyov, speaker of the General Staff said that the militants continued to fire on the positions of the Krivbass battalion. He said Cossacks had come under white flags to try to persuade the men to surrender. He said the men were standing firm.

“Our position is clear. Our soldiers have taken up positions and are standing where they were. Our artillery is firing on those who advance. There is an offensive by the militants and there is a reaction.

Earlier at 18:30, some of the units were cut off from each other, and when they tried to rejoin, they fell under shell fire and had to retreat. Thus, they are dealing with little kettles, and not one big kettle as they were in Ilovaisk.”

Food had run out nonetheless in some positions and some soldiers said they were now drinking just water, in solidarity with Savchenko.

The Ukrainian soldiers believe that if the OSCE mission could just make its way to them, they could be saved. They could help evacuate the wounded and the bodies of those killed. But as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin said, the DNR fighters were not letting the mission through to Debaltsevo.

As we reported yesterday February 15, Nikolai Kolesnik, advisor to Dnepropetrovsk Governor Ihor Kolomoyskyi, militants were shooting on three positions of the 40th Battalion, and they reported they were surrounded.

“Our fighter from one of the checkpoints near Chernukhino called another and said, ‘Borya, we’re surrounded,’ and said goodbye,” said Olga, a volunteer who is helping soldiers in the ATO zone. Based on the information from intelligence, she says that the main strongholds of the 40th are really surrounded now.

“For the people from here, it’s not a ‘kettle’ because they can get to Debaltsevo via other roads somehow. But for the guys there, it’s a kettle,” she said.

It is not clear from available reports whether the crossroads of Debaltsevo where four roads meet was under Ukrainian control or not; last week, Ukrainians were constantly fending off separatists’ attacks, says

The Krivbass battalion is located in a two-story building in Debaltsevo but this is now damaged and the men are in the cellar. Yuliya, the wife of one of the soldiers of the 40th who works at the headquarters office, said she had reached her husband yesterday morning:

“They are shooting, some Cossacks came and tried to come to an agreement. They have been encircled for a long time. Sinkovsky said already they were encircled. He said that they’re already in the cellars. That building, where the headquarters were, it’s already gone. Sinkovsky already said that the guys have no vehicles, if they were to retreat — I can’t even imagine how that would be done.”

Yuliya said the OSCE was supposed to come today but has not yet. She said the separatists have seized the 40th battalion’s radio station. Communications were somehow restored but she does not know for how long. Packages sent to them did not reach them.

Sinkovsky, deputy commander of the 40th, said:

“I can confirm there is no ceasefire there. Battles are underway at the strongholds. An hour ago a battle finished near Logvinovo. I urge the OSCE representatives to be invited there and see what kind of ceasefire it is, after all. There is no ceasefire. There are battles under way in Chernukhino, Logvinovo. It is not just an encirclement of the 40th, they have sneaked through to the strongholds and in part have surrounded the strongholds. I can confirm that fact.”

Rodion Korovkin, former chief of staff of the battalion said that according to his information, from some of the soldiers he had reached yesterday morning at 9:00 am, they were completely surrounded and had enough ammunition for 30-40 minutes of battle. reported that Lysenko could not confirm this, but meanwhile soldiers in the 40th said that most likely the military leadership did not know about their actual situation.

All night, there was shooting on the positions of the 40th, and one wounded man was brought out. He also denied the information published by Semyon Semyonchenko yesterday that the road from Debaltsevo to Luganskoye was clear.

He reiterated that the men were staying in position. “Not a step back, we’re standing our ground,” he said.

If they were to evacuate from the kettle, they had no vehicles, they would have to make a march out and look for vehicles along the way at checkpoints.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick