Ukraine Live Day 344: Heavy Fighting Reported Outside Debaltsevo And Near Lugansk

January 27, 2015
Avdeyevka market after shelling yesterday. Photo via @vetaavdeevskaya

Yesterday’s live coverage of the Ukraine conflict can be found here. An archive of our liveblogs can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

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For the latest summary of evidence surrounding the shooting down of flight MH17 see our separate article: Evidence Review: Who Shot Down MH17?

Russian Military Contingent Missing from JCCC Headquarters for 5 Days

The latest report is out from the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM), and among the grim reports of battles on the front line and demonstrations for Nadiya Savchenko in Kharkiv is an interesting note: the much-discussed and controversial Russian military contingent has been “missing” from the JCCC (Joint Centre for Control and Co-ordination) headquarters in Debaltsevo (Debaltseve) for five days:

The Russian Major-General, representative of the Armed Forces of the
Russian Federation to the JCCC, and his staff, and members of the
“Lugansk People’s Republic” (“LPR”) and the “Donetsk People’s Republic”
(“DPR”), had been absent from the JCCC headquarters for the fifth
consecutive day, staying instead in government-controlled Soledar (77km
north of Donetsk). 

Russian Maj.Gen. Vyaznikov of the JCCC has been intensely watched by Twitter bloggers who believe there’s an essential conflict of interest in having Russian military involved in monitoring missions when Russia is a party to the conflict. This particularly grates when the Russian military are involved in fact-finding on atrocities such as the Volnovakha bus shelling, when the Russian government and state media put out disinformation regarding the tragedy that was widely reported by OSCE’s other monitors and independent analysts as likely the responsibility of the Russian-backed separatists.

Earlier, OSCE SMM had reported that Gen. Vyaznikov had relocated to the JCCC’s field office in Soledar, “citing security concerns.”

That seems prudent, as the Russian-backed forces are now shelling Debaltsevo, as we reported earlier today.

Here’s OSCE SMM’s report on the front line today:

The SMM continued to monitor the implementation of the provisions
of the Minsk Protocol and Memorandum and the work of the Joint Centre
for Control and Co-ordination (JCCC). Russian Federation military
officers and “LPR” and “DPR” members are still absent from the JCCC
headquarters in Debaltseve.

At the headquarters of the Joint Centre for Control and Co-ordination
(JCCC) in government-controlled Debaltseve (55km north-east of Donetsk),
the Ukrainian Major-General, head of the Ukrainian side to the JCCC,
told the SMM over the telephone that the JCCC headquarters remained
staffed only by Ukrainian Armed Forces personnel. He said that the
Russian Major-General, representative of the Armed Forces of the Russian
Federation to the JCCC, and his staff, and members of the “Lugansk
People’s Republic” (“LPR”) and the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”),
had been absent from the JCCC headquarters for the fifth consecutive
day, staying instead in government-controlled Soledar (77km north of
Donetsk). The Ukrainian Major-General said that in the 24 hours
preceding 08:00hrs, 26 January there had been 115 ceasefire violations
registered by the JCCC. He added that six Ukrainian soldiers had been
killed and 18 injured in the same period.

In Mariupol (113km south of Donetsk), the SMM spoke to the secretary
of the Jewish Cultural Centre, which hosts the only synagogue in the
city. She said she had no knowledge of there having been a Jew amongst
the victims of the fatal shelling incident in the city on 24 January.
She did, however, say that there was a name on the list of dead with
clear Jewish roots. She said that 25 members of the city’s Jewish
community – mostly children with their mothers – had moved to Mykolaiv
(65km north-west of Kherson) on 26 January because of heightened
security fears following the incident two days previously. She added
that of the community’s 1,500 members, 150 had left the city since the
start of the conflict because of security concerns.

According to information passed to the SMM by the JCCC Sector-A and Sector-S duty room located in “LPR”-controlled Luhansk
city, there were 38 ceasefire violations in the 24 hours preceding
08:00hrs, 26 January. All but four of them involved the use of heavy

While stationary immediately south of government-controlled
Spivakivka (70km north-west of Luhansk), the SMM heard what it assessed
to have been three outgoing rounds from a Smerch multiple rocket launch system (MRLS).

Fifty metres north of a Ukrainian military checkpoint in
government-controlled Shchastya (19km north of Luhansk), the SMM
observed three artillery rounds impacting 100m south of the checkpoint.
The rounds were fired from a southern direction.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

OSCE PA President Says Russia Needs To Close Its Borders With Ukraine To Save Civilian Lives

The President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has posted a statement today which is surprisingly frank in its tone: Russia needs to close its border with Ukraine in order to save civilian lives:

OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Ilkka Kanerva (MP, Finland) today called on Russia to close its international border with Ukraine to help counter the alarming increase in violence in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks.

“Russian leaders have spoken of their support for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Ukraine. In keeping with that pledge, I call on Russia to close the border to halt the flow of any weapons or fighters – whether volunteers or not – which may be entering eastern Ukraine. The advanced weaponry that is being employed by the illegal separatists in Ukraine is not appearing out of thin air,” Kanerva said.

That’s a significant departure from the OSCE’s mission which has been to ensure that the border between the two countries was monitored, not closed.

While the pro-Putin trolls immediately took to Twitter to denounce the humanitarian implications for closing the border (increasingly, many civilians in the Donbass are fleeing Ukraine to escape the violence) clearly Kanerva’s critics didn’t read the rest of his statement. Kanerva admitted that there would be an impact on civilians if the border was closed, but in what may be the most controversial part of the statement he argued that keeping the border open may be more harmful to civilians — the inference here is that Russia is moving weapons across the border which are being used to kill civilians:

“Of course, in closing the border, there is also the need to consider the provision of humanitarian assistance to civilian populations affected by the fighting. However, I note the assessment by the UN that the appalling attack on Mariupol, which emanated from rebel-held territory, deliberately targeted civilian populations. Closing the border, then, may be a major form of humanitarian assistance in itself,” the OSCE PA President added.

Kanerva also described the expansion of the conflict into the Mariupol area as a “grave escalation” and welcomed the recent Declaration by representatives of the OSCE’s 57 participating States that calls for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and the full implementation of the Minsk agreements.

The situation in and around Ukraine will be on the agenda at the OSCE PA’s Winter Meeting next month in Vienna.

James Miller

Police in Odessa Arrest Three Persons from Transnistria with Explosives
Russian-Backed Forces Reportedly Shell Hospital

The Ukrainian military ATO press centre claims that Russian-backed forces have shelled a hospital in Ukrainian-held Svetlodarsk, north-west of Debaltsevo.

Censor.NET reports that Russian-backed forces fired Grad rockets at around 15:00 (13:00 GMT) today, striking the town hospital.

Casualties are reported amongst both patients and staff, though the figures are yet to be confirmed.

Ukrainian activist Konstantin Reutski wrote on his Facebook page that one female staff member had been killed after a shell exploded in the yard of the hospital.

The ATO press centre deemed the incident a “terrorist attack.”

The Interpreter translates:

“It is well known that shelling Red Cross facilities is unwarrantable, but the Russian-managed mercenaries are not disposed to adhering to civilised rules.”

— Pierre Vaux

Ukraine Trying To Hold Back Russian-Supported Forces On Three Fronts

In this morning’s summary of the fighting across Ukraine we pointed out the intense pressure that the Ukrainian position at Debaltsevo (Debaltseve) is under. Today areas both north and south of the city were hit hard by artillery and mortars. Kyiv Post editor Maxim Tucker says that the shelling is now so intense that journalists cannot enter the area.

Debaltsevo should be considered part of the Donetsk front. While that city has been surrounded on three sides for months, now that Donetsk Airport has fallen to the Russian-backed fighters the distance between Debaltsevo and the rest of Ukraine’s military positions continues to grow. Soon the city may be completely encircled, and once that happens it will both secure part of an important highway between Lugansk and Donetsk, while simultaneously freeing up a lot of Russian-backed fighters who can strike further north, and west of Donetsk.

Russian-supported forces are also pushing west and southwest of Donetsk and may be closer to complete control of Marinka than they have been since before the Minsk accords in September. The push southwest of Donetsk will continue to apply more pressure to Ukrainian forces further south, such as those in Mariupol, another area under heavy attack. 

Near Lugansk we reported fighting at  Stanitsa Luganskaya, separating Ukrainian-controlled territory to the north from separatist “LNR” territory to the south. All week we’ve also been reporting that Russian-supported fighters have been trying to push west of Lugansk to better connect the two separatist capitals.

The Interpreter’s Michael Weiss and James Miller have published a summary of the fighting in The Daily Beast, where we also tried to determine Putin’s wider strategy and the prospects for whether the Ukrainian government could stop Russian-supported forces from taking Mariupol. The assessment is grim:

We also discussed the importance of all three fronts, including the economic importance of Mariupol which might otherwise be overlooked as many are concentrating on the military aspects of the fighting:

A key port city, Mariupol lies south of Donetsk on the Azov Sea, uncomfortably close to the Russian border—and it would be a necessary gateway for any possible “land-bridge” to Crimea. Because the Ukrainian peninsula, which Russia invaded and “annexed” a year ago, relies on the mainland for its water and electricity, a popular theory as to Putin’s military end-game has it that he won’t stop until he can physically run pipes and power-lines from Russian Federation territory to Crimea. But Mariupol’s strategic importance also lies in its economic potential.  The city accounts for about a third of all industrial output in the Donetsk region, producing over 70 percent of its steel. About two thirds of that amount was sold in exports in 2013.  So Ukraine’s manufacturing economy would be severely debilitated if the city fell out of Kiev’s control…

Read the entire article here: Putin Is Winning the Ukraine War on Three Fronts: Russian-backed rebels are making gains near Donetsk, Lugansk, and Mariupol. Just how long can Kiev hold off their advances?

These themes are echoed in the reports from the Ukrainian military. Here is more from this morning’s briefing of the ATO (Anti-Terror Operation):

James Miller
Ukrainian MP Claims Destroyed ‘LNR’ Aircraft Were Near Donetsk

Earlier, we reported on announcements from the Ukrainian military that “enemy air assets” had been destroyed by Ukrainian forces.

Following the description of the destroyed aircraft, and a Russian LifeNews video which showed jets being prepared at Lugansk Air Museum, we suggested that this location, on the eastern outskirts of the ‘capital’ of the self-proclaimed ‘Lugansk People’s Republic,’ may have been the location struck.

However Borys Filatov, an independent deputy in the Verkhovna Rada, has posted on his Facebook page that the targets were not in Lugansk at all (all though he still refers to them as the “LNR air force,” but in the Donetsk region.

Writing “briefly, to avoid speculation,” Filatov claimed that the aircraft had been located in Verbovaya Balka, a village in the Donetsk region, north-east of Starobeshevo.


There is indeed a very small, grass airstrip there, one which we missed on a first pass on Google Earth.


These images from Google Earth were taken on July 16, 2014, before this area was captured by Russian-backed forces.


What we can see is interesting though. There are two aircraft to the lower right that could be An-2s, given their high-sitting wings and size. The small aircraft on the right may also be an L-39 training jet. It certainly looks like a small jet and not a propeller-driven aircraft, like the small planes visible to the top of the field.

Looking at previous Google Earth images, we see similar numbers of the possible An-2s and the smaller propeller-driven aircraft.

While Vladislav Seleznyov, spokesman for the Ukrainian General Staff, described the targets to Ukrainska Pravda, he declined to name the location, but claimed the destruction of:

one L-39 aircraft, 2 An-2 aircraft, one Yak-52, 2 Yak-50 aircraft and 4 Mi-24 helicopters.

The small aircraft visible above could well be Yak-50 or 52s. There are certainly no obstacles to this strip being used by Mi-24 helicopter gunships either.

Mi-24 gunships based here would easily have the range to conduct operations on the front lines near Volnovakha, Donetsk, Gorlovka and Mariupol.

Filatov claims that the strike on the airstrip was carried out not by Ukrainian aircraft, but by a pair of Uragan MLRS, after the site was detected by following ammunition deliveries.

— Pierre Vaux

Russian Lawmaker Says They Won’t Release Ukrainian POW Facing Murder Charges In Moscow

Yesterday the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) granted imprisoned Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko international immunity and named her as a PACE deputy. Hypothetically, this would force Russia to release Savchenko from prison since Russia is a member of PACE. However RFE/RL reports that Savchenko is likely still going to face trial:

A Russian lawmaker says a Ukrainian military pilot held in Russia for alleged involvement in the deaths of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine cannot be released simply because she is a Ukrainian lawmaker in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

Aleksei Pushkov told journalists on January 26 that demands to release Nadia Savchenko “have no legal grounds” because she is accused of a crime committed before she was elected to Ukraine’s parliament.

PACE President Anne Brasseur appealed to Russian State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin last week to help free Savchenko, whose health has severely deteriorated after 46 days of a hunger strike.

Savchenko, a Ukrainian military pilot serving in the Aidar Battalion, was captured by Russian-backed fighters and kidnapped across the border into Russia where she has been charged with the murder of two Russian state journalists whom she almost certainly never encountered in her service in Ukraine.

James Miller

Ukrainian Military Claims To Have Destroyed Enemy Air Assets

Vladislav Seleznyov, the head of the press office of the Ukrainian General Staff, has told Ukrainska Pravda that Ukrainian forces have destroyed enemy air assets in Ukrainian territory.

The Interpreter translates:

“As a result of special operation, militants’ air assets have been destroyed in the ATO zone. This is the same hardware that the militants have been showing off. They told us that they had aircraft which they were planning to use against our forces in the area of ATO operations,” said Seleznyov.

He did not specify where this airbase was located, pointing out that this was classified information.

This was enemy hardware. The Mi-24 – this is military hardware. He specified.

In turn, the Ministry of defence announced that yesterday units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces had destroyed 4 tanks, 9 armoured combat vehicles, 4 Smerch MLRS, 12 Grad MLRS, 18 vehicles, one L-39 aircraft, 2 An-2 aircraft, one Yak-52, 2 Yak-50 aircraft and 4 Mi-24 helicopters.

As Ukrainska Pravda notes, Russia’s LifeNews channel ran a report earlier this month on the creation of a “Novorossiyan Air Force” at Lugansk Air Museum, which lies on the eastern fringes of the separatist-held city.

The museum is attached to concrete runway which, according to Google satellite images taken on August 31, 2014, while Lugansk Airport to the south was being devastated by Russian forces, remains intact:


Certainly, a list of aircraft contained in the museums collection on aviationmuseum,eu, a page which was last updated on December 8, 2012, contained, alongside a large collection of cold war relics, 8 Mi-24s, 4 An-2s and 59 L-39 trainer jets. 

This said, we would be surprised if the operation to establish separatist air assets was as simple as renovating a museum collection.

To be effective such an air arm would require armaments, which would almost certainly have to come from Russia. In addition, such claims regarding the establishment of separatist air wings have been made before. Last summer LifeNews ran a report on separatist-operated Su-25 attack jets after one was claimed to be captured. The footage was however test footage from the aircraft manufacturer.

With that in mind, it would be more likely that such stories, and even ground activities at the museum, would be coordinated as part of a campaign of disinformation, paving the way for a more plausibly deniable Russian Air Force incursion into Ukraine, perhaps operating from airstrips in Lugansk or even the recently captured Donetsk Airport, if remaining resistance on the airports perimeter can be suppressed. 

— Pierre Vaux

Heavy Fighting Reported Across Front Lines

Ukrainska Pravda reports that the Ukrainian military’s ATO press centre has reported combat and shelling near the Ukrainian-held town of Debaltsevo.

According to the press centre, a military confrontation occurred in the area last night at 23:05 (21:05 GMT). 

In addition, Russian backed forces shelled Debaltsevo itself (twice) and the village of Sanzharovka with both artillery and mortars.

To the south-west, Maloorlovka was “showered” with Grad rockets by militants.


Meanwhile combat and shelling was also reported in the Lugansk region.

The ATO press centre announced that, supported by shelling from a tank, Russian backed forces had entered into combat with Ukrainian troops at 00:35 (22:35 GMT) in Stanitsa Luganskaya.

The press centre claimed that:

 “Having received a tough response, the bandits retreated.”

Novosti Donbassa reports that the press office of the governor of the Lugansk region, Hennadiy Moskal, announced that Russian-backed fighters had attempted to cross the Seversky Donets river (which separates Ukrainian-held territory to the north of Lugansk from separatist-controlled areas) on a pontoon bridge near Stanitsa Luganskaya.

No comment is given as to whether the structure was destroyed, but the Russian-backed fighters were, the report says, repelled by Ukrainian fire.

The area around Stanitsa Luganskaya was heavily shelled, with more than 10 residential buildings reportedly damaged. Moskal’s office announced that there recorded fatalities based on preliminary reports, but a 74-year-old woman did receive shrapnel wounds.

The town is still without electricity, heating or water.

The ATO press centre also reported the shelling of other settlements in the Lugansk region, with Novotoshkovskoye, Staryi Aidar, Sokolniki, Makarovo and Olkhovkaya coming under mortar and artillery fire.  Schastye was hit by Grad and mortar fire.

There has also been heavy fighting around Marinka, a Ukrainian-held suburb on the western fringes of separatist-held Donetsk.

Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency reported that the deputy military commander of the self-declared ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (DNR), Eduard Basurin, had told journalists that Marinka had largely fallen to his fighters, claiming:

“The DNR militia have taken control of a large portion of Marinka.” 

However Ukrainska Pravda reported that Roman Turovets, the head of the ATO press centre, had said that fighting was continuing in the suburb this morning.

Ukrainska Pravda also reported that, according to their own sources, heavy fighting was under way around both Donetsk Airport and the Spartak area, to the north-east.

Towards the south of the Donetsk region,  Russian-backed forces shelled Krasnogorovka, Novotroiskoye, Nikolaevka, Granitnoye and Chermalyk, reports the ATO press centre.

— Pierre Vaux

9 Ukrainian Soldiers Killed, 27 Wounded Over Last 24 Hours

Reuters reports that Vladislav Seleznyov, a Ukrainian military spokesman, has told reporters at a briefing today that nine Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 27 wounded over the last 24 hours.

Seleznyov said that the worst violence had occurred near Ukrainian-held Debaltsevo, a vulnerable, salient position on an strategically important highway linking the separatist ‘capitals’ of Donetsk and Lugansk.

“The situation remains tense. In the past 24 hours illegal armed groups carried out 120 attacks on government positions.”

Reuters notes:

The rebels have vowed to encircle Debaltseve, a town with a pre-conflict population of around 46,000 that straddles key transport routes between the two separatist strongholds.

So long as it is under the control of Kiev troops, it weakens the separatists’ frontline as it forms a “tongue”, extending into rebel-controlled territory, separatist deputy commander Eduard Basurin told Reuters.