Ukraine Live Day 346: Russian-Backed Forces Fight To Encircle Debaltsevo

January 29, 2015
OSCE monitors nspect a kindergarten damaged in Saturday's shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, in which scores of people were killed and injured. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

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.

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs.

For links to individual updates click on the timestamps.

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

On Ukraine’s Front Lines It Looks Like “World War II”

The Interpreter has just interviewed journalist David Patrikarakos, one of this conflict’s best reporters who has just returned from the Ukrainian military’s front lines.

Patrikarakos said that the shelling is so intense that it “basically a constant noise.” The front line is highly fluid — Patrkiarakos described it as “porous,” which heightens the danger of many of the roads. While this situation is dangerous for journalists and, obviously, the combatants, it’s also dangerous for any remaining civilians who are either desperately trying to get away from the fighting, or are now stuck in a war zone.

“That’s the weirdest thing being out there… there isn’t a front in the traditional sense.”

We asked Patrikarakos about his time with the Ukrainian soldiers:

The Interpreter: What is the thing that struck you most about the Ukrainian front lines? Perhaps something which is not obvious from someone on the outside?

Patrikarakos: What struck me on a personal level is how good the morale was: I was meeting troops in petrol stations who had come to pick up supplies who had been in heavy fighting just an hour earlier. Conditions are very harsh as you can imagine. It’s very cold and you see the way they live from my photos.

Patrikarakos: There’s not so much grumbling – at least to foreign journalists – they all say they’re going to win.

The Interpreter: Are most of the fighters you’ve encountered in the army volunteers, or draftees?

Patrikarakos: There’s a mix of both. You get a lot of older guys who were in the army for years, left, and then re-joined when all this started. Then you get the guys that were on Maidan and then joined up. Though many of those have gone to the battalions [the volunteer battalions rather than signing up for the regular army – The Interpreter].

I spoke mainly to hardened soldiers. I don’t doubt you’d have problems getting draftees to fight….

The Interpreter:  I think your pictures illustrate that the soldiers are resourceful but they don’t really have the equipment and supplies that they need. Is that your sense? How strapped are they?

Patrikarakos: That’s an interesting question. I asked every soldier if the government was doing enough. Most said that it wasn’t too bad, some said it was terrible in the beginning and that now it is better. A couple said that they needed more modern weapons – both they and the Russians had identical weapons but the enemy’s were more modern. But then another group said they were identical. There is a lot of contradiction depending on who you speak with.

But look at my pics of their equipment: it’s hardly cutting-edge, is it?

The Interpreter: It looks pretty makeshift…

Patrikarakos: Yeah, it is… lots of repair work. When volunteers are providing you with underwear, food and body armor, there’s a problem somewhere.

The van we drove up there in was bought for 1000 euros and broke down… It was fixed after that, and it was then donated to the army.

Patrikarakos: But these are the conditions. I think Donetsk airport and Debaltseve both show that the Ukrainians will fight, but the odds are against them.

The Interpreter: Is there any animosity among the troops toward the government? Do they feel abandoned? Supported? Somewhere in between?

Patrikarakos: Remember in July they were really winning, so Russia increased its help? This was the question I asked again and again and everyone said the government was doing fine, but I think that was more to do with them not wanting to badmouth their country to a foreigner if you see what I mean. Some talked about there not being clear enough orders and things being chaotic.

The Interpreter: Yes, there seems to be a divide between what is being said publicly and what is being said privately…

Patrikarakos: Huge. As you would expect…

I was genuinely impressed with what I saw. They’re obviously scared. As one guy said when I asked him what the biggest challenge was: “overcoming your fear.” And he’d served in the army for 12 years. My impression is that things are not going well and they realize this. The country is broke and they’re fighting Russia.

Patrikarakos: Some of them were clearly tough guys, others, who spoke far less and didn’t want to be photographed, were basically kids. 18/19 years old.

The camps are VERY basic. The toilets are basically holes in the ground with wood cabins… compared to what I imagine a US or British camp would be like there’s no comparison. Chopped wood everywhere, dogs running around… it looks like World War II.

The Interpreter: Did anybody talk about civilian casualties? I’m trying to figure out how Ukraine is supposed to fight a war when the separatists are bragging about using human shields…

Patrikarakos: Everyone lamented them and blamed them on Russia… the soldiers that is – the doctors were more concerned about treating people than apportioning blame, which is fair enough.

The Interpreter: Did any of them say “man I wish we had X”, x being “drones, cruise missiles, air support…

Patrikarakos: Not from the soldiers but from the military brass, yes. And the security council. Every time I spoke to them they basically want lethal aid.

But there is also a pride thing that comes across to everyone you speak to: “We need x but we’re still fighting bravely and we’ll win.” But the situation is far more desperate than that.

James Miller
Leader of Crimean Tatars Arrested By Russian Forces In Simferopol
Some disturbing news:

RFE/RL reports that Ciygoz, the Deputy Chaitman of the Tatar Mejlis, was arrested for organizing “mass disorder” related to anti-Russian protests held in February, before the annexation of Crimea was official:

“On February 26, 2014, unknown individuals called on Crimean Tatars to disobey local officials’ lawful demands, which caused mass disorder accompanied with violence,” Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said.

James Miller

US Ambassador to OSCE Condemns Continued Savchenko Detention by Moscow, Torture of Ukrainian POWs by Russian-Backed Separatists

Amb. Daniel Bayer, the US envoy to the OSCE, made a statement today January 29 at the Permanent Council of the OSCE in Vienna condemning the torture of POWs:

We are appalled by recent reports that the Russia-backed
separatists have beaten, tortured, and subsequently publicly paraded Ukrainian security
forces captured at the Donetsk airport. The detainees were forcibly dragged to the site of the trolleybus
bombing in Donetsk, where they were forced to ask the public for “forgiveness.” The separatists took pictures of the captured
soldiers and posted them all over the Internet. We condemn these actions. They
are further examples of the Russia-backed separatists’ blatant disregard for
human decency, as well as the commitments they made in Minsk.

We reiterate our condemnation of Russia’s continued
detention of Ukrainians including Nadiya Savchenko, a member of the Verkhovna
Rada, and Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. We are deeply concerned by reports that Ms. Savchenko has been on a
hunger strike since December 13 to protest the terms of her detention, and that
her health is deteriorating as a result. We also note that Ms. Savchenko is a delegate to the
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a body dedicated to
protecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe. We repeat our call that Russia and the
Russia-backed separatists immediately release all hostages as they agreed to do
in Minsk.

See The Interpreter’s coverage of the stories of the POWs:

Kiev Holds Rally For Ukrainian POW Facing Murder Charges In Moscow

Russian-Backed Separatist Commander Givi Tortures Ukrainian POWs

Video Shows Both Dead and Alive POWs in Krasny Partizan

Further on the POWs at Krasny Partizan

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Ukrainian POW Facing Murder Charges In Moscow Moved To Prison Hospital Due To Hunger Strike

RFE/RL reports that Nadiya Savchenko — the Ukrainian military pilot who was captured by Russian-supported forces, kidnapped across the border, and is now facing murder charges in a Moscow court — has been transferred to a prison hospital because of her severe weight loss as a result of her hunger strike:

Savchenko lawyer Ilya Novikov told Interfax that his client, who is in the seventh week of a hunger strike, was transferred to the medical department at Moscow’s notorious Matrosskaya Tishina detention center on January 29.

James Miller

Ukrainian Chief of General Staff Confirms Presence of Individual Russian Soldiers in Ukraine

Lt. Gen. Viktor Muzhenko, the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ Chief of the General Staff and Commander-in-Chief, said there are only individual Russian fighters in combat in Ukraine, not the regular army of Russia, reports.

Gen. Viktor Muzhenko, the Ukrainian military’s chief of staff said there are only individual Russian fighters in combat in Ukraine, not the regular army of Russia.

In a program on Ukraine’s Channel 5, Lt. Gen. Murzhenko said that the Ukrainian military did not possess any proof of the massive participation of the regular Russian army in the conflict in the Donbass.

“Now we have only facts of participation by individual citizens of the Russian Federation and servicemen of the Russian army who are members of unlawful armed formations. I will also say that the Ukrainian Army is not fighting the regular units of the army of Russia.”

Lt. Gen. Murzhenko said that the involvement of individual Russian forces in the conflict in the Donbass was completely confirmed:

“At this time we have documented proof of the involvement of servicemen of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the side of the separatists. These are confirmed facts. There is also documented confirmation of the fact of the participation of citizens of the RF in the terrorist groups.”

Speaking at the Davos Economic Forum on January 21, President Petro Poroshenko said that according to Ukrainian intelligence,there are 9,000 Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Civilians Wait For Evacuation From Debaltsevo As Fighting Rages to the West

Kyiv Post editor Maxim Tucker is calling the battle for Debaltsevo “Donetsk Airport 2.0,” meaning that Ukraine may fight to the bitter end to hold the position.

There is, however, a striking difference between those two battles: Debaltsevo was home to more than 25,000 civilians before this fighting began, and many of them are still stranded in the town:

James Miller
Russian-Backed Forces Fight To Encircle Debaltsevo

Both Russian and Ukrainian sources report intense fighting around Debaltsevo with conflicting claims of military developments. 

The Ukrainian military ATO press centre claimed that, at around 3 am (1:00 GMT), Russian-backed fighters had mounted an assault on the Ukrainian-held village of Maloorlovka, to the south-east of Debaltsevo. The report claimed that the attackers were, after encountering stiff resistance from the Ukrainians, forced to withdraw.

Video from Russia’s LifeNews showed soldiers of Alexei Mozgovoi’s Prizrak (ghost) battalion moving along the railway line to the east of Debaltsevo, firing Grad rockets as they prepare to mount an assault through the village of Nizhnaya Vergulevka. The group also come under fire at one point in the video.

Meanwhile, RFE/RL reports that Eduard Basurin, deputy military commander of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk Peoples’s Republic,’ claimed that his fighters had succeeded in pushing Ukrainian forces off the strategically vital highway linking the town with other Ukrainian positions. 

RFE/RL continues:

Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko confirmed Debaltseve is surrounded on two flanks and is being heavily targeted with Grad multiple-rocket launchers.

Other officials denied government forces were close to surrendering and said separatist claims were exaggerated.

Indeed a post on the Antikvariat forum, under the username ‘Kotych,’ which is believed to be Igor Girkin, known as Strelkov, the former military leader of the separatists in Slavyansk, suggested that the Russian-backed offensive was encountering difficulties.

He claimed that two key positions, Troitskoye and Krasny Pakhar, had been retaken by the Ukrainians, and that the Russian-backed forces had were digging in back at positions gained in the first days of their offensive. 

Strikingly, the post concluded (translated by The Interpreter):

It can be said that the flanking of Debaltsevo from the north has failed. Big losses. The enemy’s losses are estimated as being considerably larger, but with the balance of forces between the Novorossiyan and Ukrainian armed forces, this doesn’t play a serious role.

Dmytro Tymchuk of Information Resistance credited the claimed success of the defence of Debaltsevo to Ukrainian artillery operations.

However, Ukraine’s Obozrevatel reported that they had been told by a source that Ukraine’s 42nd artillery battery, firing from a village near Debaltsevo, was in urgent need of help.

According to the source, the battery had been calling for help for the last two days and had only 40 crew members and one mortar left. 

— Pierre Vaux