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Graham Phillips, a notorious British propagandist who records videos for several Russian state-owned media outlets, including RT (via their Ruptly agency) and the Ministry of Defence’s Zvezda channel, has posted a video report from “the front lines, by Debaltsevo.”
As Phillips waffles on about the absence of a ceasefire, you can see something rather more interesting behind him:
These are Russian T-72B3 tanks.
They can be identified as such by two distinguishing features:
Firstly, their Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armour (ERA), which consists of large, angled pairs of plates around the turret.
Secondly, their Sosna-U sights:
The Sosna-U was only introduced to the T-72B series, on the B3, in 2013.
The T-72B3 has not been exported outside Russia. These are therefore, not captured Ukrainian tanks in separatist hands, but the latest Russian tanks, likely manned by Russian troops or at least handed over to specially-trained local separatists.
— Pierre Vaux
Here are some grim reports from the front line today, where the ceasefire is now a faint memory for men actually fighting to prevent further loss of Ukrainian territory:
Yury Kasyanov, a respected volunteer who organized the Armiya-SOS group to supply the troops via civilian donations has written on his Facebook (translation by The Interpreter):
Ceasefire. The country is rejoicing. The people are full of optimism. Klimkin [Ukrainien Foreign Minister] is a great guy. Kuchma [former president] is a great guy. The president is the main great guy. Oh, how triumphantly and persuasively the order for the ceasefire was given by the General Staff! How beautiful it all was; and how well they looked in their uniforms…And the President spoke in English. And the cannons were silent and silence ensued. And a typical peaceful Sunday began…You can relax, rest from work, forget about the war…
All along the line of contact there are battles. In some places they are sitting in dug-outs, in some places they are fending of firing from entrenched enemies, and somewhere they are mourning the dead. There are a lot of dead. On the outskirts of Debaltsevo, the 40th Battalion is being killed, in local encirclement, with its ammunition running out. The columns with the wounded coming out of Debaltsevo is being killed; the columns breaking out of Debaltsevo are being killed – with ammunition…Luganskoye, Popasnya, Shirokino, Schastye are being fired on now with Grads…
The pseudo-peace is in full swing. Slant-eyed Buryat militia have made themselves at home in Vergulyovka, Uglegorsk, Kalinovo…Thousands of tons of ammunition are crossing our border in convoys. The surrounding of our forces west of Luganskoye is being prepared; strikes on Lisichansk, on Berdyansk are possible. Our group is courageously being killed in Debaltsevo, doomed to destruction by the new Minsk agreements.
Sunday. Beautiful weather. You can relax after the work week. Forget about the war. And you’re all great guys.
Donbass Battalion Commander Semyon Semyonchenko also has a grim report from Mariupol on his Facebook page.
Outside of Mariupol, a Donbass company was stupidly led into an ambush (a checkpoint) of terrorists. According to preliminary information, the guide “mixed up the turn.” As a result there was a battle and two 200s [killed] — Tsar and Usach. Three were wounded — Vodila, Mikhaylych, Aver.
Usach came out of the Ilovaisk kettle [in August 2014], destroyed an enemy’s armor with a grenade launcher and the rest of the guys were hard-core — “the old guard,” not like the bastards wending their ways through Kiev bars and press conferences, wearing the chevrons of volunteer battalions and in fact little distinguishable from the scum of the DNR-LNR. The guys mobilized several days ago, and out of the reservists became soldiers…
Why the hell were the Donbass divisions spread over two regions and three lines; after all, we needed them so outside of Debaltsevo for all these days?
Why the hell were they sent with light weapons towards dangerous tank lines?
Why the hell were they given a guide who should be doing time for several criminal offenses?
Why the hell are they ignoring all the reports of information provocations, attempts to divide the battalion all these months? Why are the perpetrators not punished?
Why the hell do they give orders directly to the divisions, bypassing the commander of the battalion?
WHAT DID PEOPLE DIE FOR?
I have a lot of these “why the hell” questions. And not only me. And there are too many coincidences in the last two weeks. Against Debaltsevo and against Mariupol. And against the guys and me and Isya Munayev [Chechen commander fighting on side of Ukraine, killed earlier this month]. Thank you, we have made our conclusions.
Now is not the time and place. Just pray for Usach and Tarya. In that way, using their call signs. And those who were wounded but who remain alive in that meat-grinder. When I get from Debaltsevo to the hospital, I’ll add some photos.
Good bye, guys, eternal memory to you.
We will not leave or betray Ukraine while we are alive.
PS Svyatoslav, traumatic amputation of the arm. F**k!!!!!!!!!!
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Nikolai Kolesnkik of Krivoy Rog, advisor to Dnepropetrovsk Governor Ihor Kolomoyskiy and patron of the 40th Battalion known as “Kryvbas,” has just reported half an hour ago on his Facebook page (translation by The Interpreter), citing Yury Sinkovsky, deputy commander of the 40th Battalion:
Seleznyov, advisor to the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (just now) confirmed about the tanks, about the ultimatum, and about what Yury Sinkovsky and I have been yelling about for the whole day. Let’s not report up the chain, it’s already known, and evacuate the wounded, and help the personnel, we need ammunition. Let’s go faster, all your roads are “unblocked,” after all, everything is under control, and the flag will be over the fortress in a day.
Kolesnik is showing some skepticism about the roads being unblocked.
Note: Kolesnik is frequently reported erroneously to be the “commander of the 40th battalion.” But as he himself has explained in a January 25th Facebook post which we reported, he is not a military commander, but a patron of the battalion who has helped to supply it and is also an advisor to the governor. This local press report in kstati.dp.ua about the ultimatum correctly identifies him.
Now there are also reports that the 40th Battalion’s position is being attacked, from Pravda.ua:
Ukraine claimed yesterday and early today that they had control of at least some of the roads.
This is being disputed now after battles throughout the day.
There are also reports of Russian tanks used in the battle for Debaltsevo:
Translation: LifeNews has outed the 136th Separate Motorized Brigade in Debaltsevo.
The tank shows a symbol that has been tracked from Russia into Ukraine on some armor by InformNapalm.
We’re a long ways now from the ceasefire soccer shown eight hours ago.
Nikolai Kolesnik of Krivoy Rog, commander of the 40th “Kryvbas” Battalion, said on his Facebook page that separatists were shelling three Ukrainian positions including the 40th battalion with mortars and giving him an ultimatum (translation by The Interpreter):
There is firing, movement of tanks, those that are standing
all have engines turned on, the enemy’s infantry is moving around the
town freely. They are making an ultimatum to leave our positions at a
In a subsequent post
he said he had a phone call from an official reprimanding him for
reporting news, and also let it be known in no uncertain terms what
commanders like him on the front line think of any repeat of the battle of
Ilovaisk: “If they propose a ‘humanitarian corridor’ it will be f**king
Earlier today there were reports of text-messages send out randomly
to be picked up by Ukrainian soldiers that got some amplification from a
On the first day of the ceasefire that went into effect at midnight February 15 Kiev time (GMT+2), there are a number of reports of violations and continued fighting particularly around Debaltsevo.
But OSCE is blocked from monitoring the area, which is also very dangerous for journalists.
OSCE has given a press conference, covered by the Russian state video service Ruptly:
There are unconfirmed reports of 13 killed in the shelling of ambulances.
Translation: 3 Debaltsevo managed to take out 40 wounded soldiers.
Max Avdeyev, a Russian
photographer, is one of the few journalists in the area. He posted some
photos to Instagram in the last few hours, saying that he hear shell
fire coming from both sides.
An hour ago, he posted this photo, saying, “It wasn’t easy to make a landscape without a dead body.”
Cell phones seem to be working, but there isn’t any
other activity on Instagram from Debaltsevo except these two photos,
the first at 6:57 am labelled “outside Debaltsevo” showing some
Ukrainian soldiers playing soccer:
And another from Vesti.ua showing Ukrainian soldiers on a tank at 2:46 pm “outside Debaltsevo”:
These locations are not verified.
Meanwhile, other footage has been obtained of the Ukrainians’ soccer game:
The broadcasting of the soccer game was evidently meant to convey a sense of high morale with control of the road to Debaltsevo.
But there was a blow to this morale with the loss of a mascot:
There are numerous reports of violations of the ceasefire, which went into effect midnight, Kiev time, February 15 — which for the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Lugansk People’s Republic” was at 1:00 am — as they are on Moscow time. Many of these reports revolve around what is known as the “Debaltsevo Kettle.”
Debaltsevo (Debaltseve) is a key transportation hub in southeasterm Ukraine which is often described as “the gate-way to the land-bridge to Crimea,” long sought by Russian military planners as the asset needed (from their perspective) to make the forcibly-annexed Crimean peninsula easier and less expensive to reach. If they control a land bridge, they not only can take their time building an expensive and complicated bridge over the Kerch Strait, they can also ultimately avoid bottlenecks at that location.
But if you look at the map, you can see the actual “land bridge to Crimea” runs much further to the south through Mariupol on the coast — another town that has seen heavy battles, including shelling by Russian-backed forces that killed 31 civilians on January 24.
Indeed, the road along the coast, from Novoazovsk through Mariupol and on towards Crimea is small and ill-suited for a major supply route. It’s a two-lane road in most places, such as here at the border, looking from Russia into Ukraine:
The highway from Lugansk to Donetsk and the west, via Debaltsevo is a far more important trunk road.
To the Western eye, this picture of the Debaltsevo crossroads of four main highways taken by Andrei Omelyanenko may not seem like much, but the highway, here looking toward Russia, is that much wider and improved, and most importantly, has more roads linking to it:
Another photo on Panoramio taken by Viktor Stonikov near this crossroads illustrates another important feature — services. This road has gas stations, repair shops, and cafes, which is why we see trucks on it.
There are also the highways near the crossroads, which meet at a junction near the border between Donetsk and Lugansk Regions.
Photo by Bogdan Smykov
Debaltsevo, which began with a rail station built in 1878, is also famous as a rail hub, especially in a country with inadequate roads where there is greater reliance on rails for passengers and freight.
Photo by VnTsokur
Due to the war, freight traffic is down 60% in Ukraine and many stations are closed, including Debaltsevo and other stops such as Gorlovka to the west, Popasnya to the north and Artyomovsk to the east. Ukrainian forces reportedly mined the fields near the Debaltsevo station.
Control of Debaltsevo, however, is still secondary as Ukraine still controls Mariupol. Only if the Russian-backed separatists gained control both of Debaltsevo and Mariupol could they have a “gateway to a land-bridge” — and in general control of major highways — which is why these two cities are so often the site of fierce battles.
Yet before there can be “a gateway to a land-bridge,” there has to be something else — control of at least all of Donetsk Region and then by implication, all of Lugansk Region — that is, the gateway to the rest of Ukraine. Control over Donetsk and Lugansk Regions are more immediately important to the Russian-backed militants — currently they only have part of these regions in what they call “the People’s Republics.” Indeed, that is why the law to come out of the Minsk agreement in September 2014, passed by the Verkhovna Rada and signed by President Petro Poroshenko, is titled “Law on Certain Districts of the Donetsk and Lugansk Regions” (Special Law on the Donbass) (emphasis added).
Debaltsevo is a hub that could connect the two “people’s republics” in the north by main highways, although in the south, they have controlled the road from the Russian border and their ample supply chain through Sverdlovsk, Rovenky, Krasny Luch, Snezhnoye, Shakhtorsk, Khartsysk and then Donetsk.
And if you look at the map of this region, you can see the main highways lead to the north to Ukrainian-controlled Slavyansk and other towns, which they wrested back from the militants in July. Then zoom out to see these towns in context with the Crimean Peninsula.
Clearly, the immediate environs of Debaltsevo are more of a priority now than the Crimea.
So first of all, the Russian-backed separatists want control of Debaltsevo in order to reach the rest of Donetsk and Lugansk regions they do not control — which they believe is theirs by right, as Aleksandr Zakharchenko, prime minister of the DNR, made clear in a press conference yesterday, as we reported:
I said in Minsk, and will say now, all the territory of Donetsk
Region, which at this time remains occupied is the territory of the
Donetsk People’s Republic. What way we will take this, militarily or
politically, believe me, it doesn’t matter. Politically is even more
advantageous for the simple reason that it’s better, we won’t lose
people. […] Any shedding of blood is worth it in order to talk and
then try to resolve it peacefully. If it doesn’t work, we have shown the
world that we are capable of resolving this militarily. We have
repeatedly shown this.
There is not a single word in the Minsk agreement about Debaltsevo.
That means that Ukraine simply betrayed the 5,000 people who are now in
the Debaltsevo Kettle. We will cease fire throughout the whole territory
of the Donetsk People’s Republic excluding the interior region, that
region is Debaltsevo. Any attempt of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to break
out of the Debaltsevo Kettle or to blockade it will be treated by us as
a violation of the Minsk agreement, and naturally these attempts will
be cut off and be destroyed. I’ve given that order to our armed forces,
so everyone is ready and everyone is waiting.
(See also The New York Times).
Thus, Zakharchenko regards Debaltsevo as the exception to the Minsk peace agreement as it was “nowhere stated” that it was included. Not surprisingly, Russian state media reported last night that militants fired on Ukrainian positions which they claimed had fired on them first.
If you look at the map, you can see why Debaltsevo is sometimes called “the Debaltsevo pocket” because it is land that has been controlled by Ukraine that extends down deep into DNR-held territory. It has been a staging ground for the Ukrainian forces to battle the rest of the Russian-led encroachment on their territory.
The map for February 15 produced by the pro-Russian separatist blogger dragon_first_1 shows the Ukrainian forces in blue nearly surrounded by the Russian-backed fighters in red:
Precisely because Debaltsevo is a strategic hub, the OSCE decided to put their Joint Center for Control and Coordination, staffed by by Ukrainian, Russian and other member states’ military to monitor the ceasefire and border, in this Ukrainian-held city. Soon, the OSCE had to deal not only with problems like the Russian military misusing vehicles with the OSCE insignia and charges that the Russians were using their presence there for espionage, but with intense shell fire — and simply had to re-locate the center to the north in Soledar on February 8.
By surrounding some 8,000 Ukrainian forces on all sides, the DNR can claim this hub now, although Ukrainians claim still to control the road to it, so that they still have some say in it. The DNR has forced out many but not all civilians and hope for a replay of the August battle of Ilovaisk, where they may arrange a “humanitarian corridor,” as President Vladimir Putin promised (and then did not deliver on) for Ukrainian forces to surrender and leave after turning over heavy weapons. The fear is that they may be betrayed and ambushed, as they were in Ilovaisk, so Ukrainian forces are not going to be willing to stage that replay, where they lost at least 300 men. No doubt they plan to stand and fight — and with control of some of the roads, as Semyon Semyonchenko indicated yesterday February 14, and as some reports indicate today February 15, they have a chance.
If they attempt to shoot their way out, however, Zakharchenko is letting the world know that he will shoot back – with the might of the Russian Federation behind him.
A look at the map shows the dire plight of the Ukrainians — who naturally want to keep this “pocket” because otherwise, they lose control not only of more Donetsk Region territory, but make it very difficult for themselves to hang on to the rest of Donetsk Region in particular, and also ultimately, the Lugansk Region.
Ukrainian-held settlements to the north-west of Debaltsevo such as Popasnaya, Zolotoye, Krymskoye and Schastye are under constant attack and will be left even more vulnerable if the Debaltsevo salient is crushed — indeed pro-Kremlin commentator Sergei Markov described this as an aim of the “Novorossiya” armed forces.
On this map from the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council below, all of DNR- and LNR-controlled territory adjacent to Russia is marked in brown and striped. The flames along the line of demarcation are where the battles are now for Ukraine to try to hold the line and retain the rest of Donetsk and Lugansk Regions — and indeed, the rest of Ukraine, where rebels have also caused havoc with bombings of buildings in Kharkiv, Odessa and other towns.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick