Ukraine Live Day 366: Ukrainian Journalist Reports Retreat from Debaltsevo

February 18, 2015
Ukrainian soldiers retreating from Debaltsevo on February 18, 2015 | Photo: Anastasiia Bereza

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Ukrainian President Requests International Peacekeepers in Eastern Ukraine

Some late-breaking news:

24 Today has these details:

During a meeting of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council on February 18, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that Ukraine may ask the United Nations to dispatch peacekeepers to Ukraine…

A second issue raised by Poroshenko is the legislative procedure for introducing martial law, considering the particularities of the current hybrid war being waged against Ukraine by Russia. Joint military training and improving medical treatment of injured soldiers were also issues raised during the meeting.

As far as we can tell, there is no plan, yet, to declare martial law:

James Miller
More Reports On The Withdrawal From Debaltsevo

We just carried a must-read report from Kyiv Post on the Ukrainian military’s withdrawal from Debaltsevo. The Telegraph is also carrying a report by Roland Oliphant who has spoken with some of the soldiers in Artemivsk. Some of these men contradict the statement by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that 80% of the troops had been withdrawn:

“Only half of us got out,” said a soldier with a head wound who declined to give his name. “People got out how they could, alone, together, in groups. The lorry I was in got hit on the way, that’s how I got this,” he said.

Others said there was no telling how many were still there.
“There is still fighting; some have been killed, some may have been taken prisoner. We don’t know how many are left,” said Sergei, a unit commander who said his men had been stationed outside Debaltseve for most of the battle.

Meanwhile, the rebels said 153 Ukrainian soldiers had given themselves up.

“It’s an artillery fight. First they pound us with the big stuff. Then come the tanks, then come the infantry,” said a member of the Ukrainian army’s 13th brigade who rolled up the road to safety in Artemivsk on Wednesday afternoon. “They’ve got these Russian tanks – stronger, more modern than anything we’ve got.”

“My company went in with 150 men. Of them, 45 are left,” said the soldier, who gave his name only as Misha.

The article goes on to quote Semen Semenchenko, a Ukrainian MP and leader of the Donbass Volunteer Battalion, who says that many bodies had been left behind.

“These are not testament to Russian superiority, but of the massive heroism of the people’s army and the gross incompetence, if not worse, of the high command,” he wrote.

Wall Street Journal’s James Marson has also filed a report on the retreat, noting that despite Poroshenko’s statements that the withdrawal was well organized, “the retreat was at times chaotic, bloody and, many soldiers said, came much too late.” Marson interviewed a Ukrainian Lieutenant who says that by Tuesday his troops were nearly out of ammunition:

“If you stay there, it’s capture or death,” he said. “The decision to leave came to everyone at the same time.”

With no transport remaining, Lt. Prekharya gathered his men as darkness fell, delaying their departure as a drone hovered overhead.

They made their way through the freezing night, looking out for enemy checkpoints and hiding from drones. The unit escaped undetected, arriving at the Ukrainian checkpoint at Luhanske just before 5 a.m.

“We were freezing like bitches, but we made it,” he said. “Some could hardly stand.”

Others weren’t so lucky. Soldiers described how one column of vehicles was ambushed by separatist tanks, leaving several dead and injured and forcing the survivors to continue on foot.

According to this report, the withdrawal started yesterday, not today,
which is directly contradicting a late briefing from the National
Security and Defense Council:
However, it’s not clear when the withdrawal was ordered:

There are many unanswered questions today, but clearly Poroshenko will be facing scrutiny at home and abroad for his strategic decisions.

James Miller

Did Poroshenko Order The Retreat From Debaltsevo, Or Did The Soldiers Leave On Their Own?

Earlier this morning we wrote an analysis of statements by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.  Poroshenko said that he had ordered the withdrawal of the troops from Debaltsevo, and he suggested that the battle was a victory.

The problem — Kyiv Post has published an account of the withdrawal, featuring the words of multiple soldiers from multiple units. One of them says that the troops began to withdraw before Poroshenko ordered the troops to pull back, and another said that the troops defending the city were ordered to stay:

Poroshenko said that soldiers of 128th, 25th, 30th brigade, fighters of special forces and some policemen managed to leave the Debaltseve area. He said it was 80 percent of troops that were sent to the area.

“We preserved a base for defending the country. This is a persuasive proof of the defense potential of the army and the effectiveness of the military command,” Poroshenko said before leaving to the east in order to personally greet the soldiers who left Debaltseve.

But the soldiers are angry because they say they had actually been told to stay put, and effectively left to die in a trap. Prekharia, who had survived the Ilovaisk massacre in late August, said that the head of General Staff Viktor Muzhenko simply repeated the mistake, allowing an encirclement to happen once again, which claimed hundreds of lives.

“In Ilovaisk we could believe Mr. Muzhenko, who said that the Russian troops abruptly showed up there. But In Debaltseve, we can’t trust him anymore. It was obvious that the military commanders failed in their job,” Prekharia said. “The commanders should have given the order to break through and retreat as soon as the threat of encirclement became obvious.”

The entire post is definitely worth reading and can be read here: Escape from Debaltseve: Ukraine’s soldiers tell how they got out alive.

James Miller

‘Local Coal Miner and Tractor Driver Raise Novorossiya Flag Over Debaltsevo’

The reference is to a remark made by President Vladimir Putin during the Minsk talks, as Buzzfeed reported:

“Of course, it’s always bad to lose, of course, it’s always a pain for
the loser, especially if you’re losing to yesterday’s miners or
yesterday’s tractor drivers,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript of his remarks. “But life is life, it’ll go on for sure.”

The man on the left in the picture is reportedly a Buryat Mongol from the Buryat Autonomous Republic of the Russian Federation who has been fighting in the Donbass. The man on the right is Vitaly Kiselyev, the deputy defense minister of the self-proclaimed “Lugansk People’s Republic” and deputy commander of the “people’s militia.”

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Savchenko’s Sister Allowed Prison Visit, But Ukrainian Doctor Not Let In
Russian Surface-To-Air Missile System Near Debaltsevo

Peter Leonard, a correspondent for the Associated Press, took the following picture earlier today:

The vehicle seen here is a Strela-10 self-propelled surface-to-air missile (SAM) launcher, as seen in this photo, by Dominique Faget for AFP, from the same area, taken on February 9:


While we have not geolocated Leonard’s tweet, the AP reporter’s account is backed up by Channel 4’s Alex Thomson:

Other Russian anti-aircraft weapons have been observed in the Donbass in recent weeks, including Pantsir-S1 combined SAM and anti-aircraft artillery systems, as noted by the British Foreign Office:

Meanwhile, another interesting report from Peter Leonard, is that he came across a tank operator from Russia’s eastern Yakutia region:

Vuhlehirsk is called Uglegorsk in Russian and the town was captured by Russian-backed forces after they entered on January 30. It lies south-west of Debaltsevo.

— Pierre Vaux

As Another Ceasefire Fails, Truth Has Been Strangled By Its Attendant Bodyguard of Lies

Field journalist David Patrikarakos has written a reflection on the last year of war and upheaval in Ukraine:

If you wanted to sum up the war in a single image it would be this: artillery firing at the precise moment that politicians grandly announce at a “cessation in hostilities.” I was there last April when separatists (helped by ‘little green men’) first took over government buildings in the eastern towns of Donetsk, Lugansk and Slavyansk.

Read the entire article here:

Also read the other articles in our series marking the one year anniversary of the Euromaidan revolution:
James Miller
Debaltsevo Left In Ruins

Translation: #Debaltsevo today. Photos: Zhenya Sira

 This drone footage from the Ukrainian Army SOS volunteer group shows extensive damage from shelling in Debaltsevo and surrounding settlements including Ugelogorsk:

CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh posted this photo of an abandoned artillery position.

We have geolocated it here, at a mine in Olkhovatka:


— Pierre Vaux

A Report From a Ukrainian Tank Commander Back From The Front
Journalist David Patrikarakos has interviewed a Ukrainian tank commander just returning from Popasna, near Debaltsevo. We’ll feature some of his tweets and observations below:
If the separatists sound like a rag-tag group, the Ukrainian soldiers don’t sound particularly elite either:
Several of the tweets speak to the issue of the extent of Russian military involvement:
An Analysis Of Poroshenko’s Remarks On the Withdrawal From Debaltsevo

As we reported below, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has confirmed the reports that Ukrainian forces have begun the withdrawal from Debaltsevo. His full statement, available here, is interesting in its own right. Poroshenko is under considerable domestic pressure since many Ukrainians never anticipated that the ceasefire would work, and some feel that the troops that have been trapped in Debaltsevo, like the troops who were trapped in Donetsk Airport, have been fighting a losing battle without proper military support.

Poroshenko’s statement:

I can inform now that this morning the Armed Forces of Ukraine together with the National Guard completed the operation on the planned and organized withdrawal of a part of units from Debaltseve. We can say that 80% of troops have been already withdrawn. We are waiting for two more columns. Warriors of the 128th brigade, parts of units of the 30th brigade, the rest of the 25th and the 40th battalions, Special Forces, the National Guard and the police have already left the area.

Coincidentally, yesterday we ran a memoir of one of the soldiers from the Kiev Rus 25 Battalion, mentioned above.  This past summer that unit had been positioned on the Chernihiv region, between Kiev and the Russian border to the north. The soldiers were told then that the Russian military was planning on punching through the northern border near where Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine all meet. The move was unexpected and the Kiev Rus Battalion knew it could not win that fight. The nervous soldiers were lucky then – they said that the battle was avoided because of a diplomatic solution, but then they were sent to Debaltsevo.

Read it here: Holding the Line Against the Russian Invasion: A Ukrainian Volunteer’s Memoir.

We can assert that the Armed Forces of Ukraine have fulfilled their tasks completely. This position and success were urgently necessary for us in the course of the Minsk negotiations and after them. We managed to show to the whole world the true face of bandits-separatists backed by Russia, which acted as guarantor and direct participant of the Minsk negotiations.

We were asserting and proved: Debaltseve was under our control, there was no encirclement, and our troops left the area in a planned and organized manner with all the heavy weaponry: tanks, APCs, self-propelled artillery and vehicles.

This is an important point. As we pointed out just hours after the Minsk deal was signed, Putin said that since the Ukrainians were surrounded they should surrender since the real demarcation line should not include the surrounded troops. This statement ran counter to everyone else’s understanding of what had been agreed upon at Minsk.

What Poroshenko is saying here is that since the Ukrainian soldiers have withdrawn today it proves that Putin was not even right, and the Ukrainian troops were never surrounded. While this may be an academic point (the Russians and separatists never held the road, to our knowledge, but had effectively cut it off as demonstrated by the heavy fighting on the road today), Poroshenko is setting up the argument here that he did not abandon Debaltsevo, but rather this operation proved that Debaltsevo belonged to Ukraine and the other side broke the ceasefire.

Commanders are working with their personnel. We are waiting for one more column, one more company. Having withdrawn the combat patrol posts to the new defense line, we have preserved the bridgehead for the defense of the state.

It is a strong evidence of combat readiness of the Armed Forces and efficiency of the military command. I can say that despite tough artillery and MLRS shelling, according to the recent data, we have 30 wounded out of more than 2,000 warriors. The information is being collected and may be clarified.

I would like to say that Russia, which yesterday required the Ukrainian warriors to lay down arms, raise the white flag and surrender, was put to shame by the given actions. Ukrainian warriors honorably approved the high rank of the Ukrainian Defender of the Homeland. As I promised, they repelled those who tried to encircle them and left Debaltseve pursuant to my command, which I gave yesterday, when Russian servicemen forbade the OSCE representatives to come to Debaltseve to reaffirm our readiness to begin the withdrawal of heavy weaponry and demonstrate the absence of encirclement. They knew it was not true. We demonstrated and proved that with our operation.

The praise for the military here is expected, but Poroshenko is also making another argument here — his commands were followed by the Ukrainian military, and they have accomplished a net-positive outcome. This part of his statement appears to be aimed at those who have doubted his leadership or his military’s loyalty.

We are holding the new defense lines. In the course of my negotiations with leaders of the United States and the EU, I demanded a firm reaction from the world to Russia’s brutal violation of the Minsk agreements, the ceasefire regime and the withdrawal of heavy weaponry. We will prepare organized and coordinated actions together.

I have convened the NSDC meeting for this evening. Now, I am departing to the front to meet those who left Debaltseve. I am honored to shake hands and thank Ukrainian heroes.

Today, my Decree on awarding the high title of Hero of Ukraine to commander of the 128th Mukacheve mining-infantry brigade Serhiy Shaptal will be proclaimed. Ukraine is proud of such heroes. Internal stability will not be undermined by the battalions “everything is lost” and “this is the end”, lies about a lot of soldiers murdered yesterday, encircled roadblocks and Ukrainian warriors without ammunition, food and water. It is not a Ukrainian scenario. I am confident that those who were spreading it expected a different result. Fortunately, we successfully completed the operation and will have an opportunity to further defend the state.”

The question now is what will happen next. Will the Russians be satisfied with their new prize, or will they push further into Ukrainian territory? Will Poroshenko respond to this by relaunching an offensive? What will Europe and the United States do? Poroshenko does not give any hints here. He suggests that he is preparing a response, but that response may just be to sure up Ukraine’s defenses elsewhere. This is the start of the next chapter in this crisis.


James Miller

Reports Of At Least 38 Dead And 167 Wounded Arriving In Artyomovsk

Novoye Vremya reports that at least 38 dead Ukrainian soldiers have been brought to Artyomovsk today as Ukrainian troops withdraw from Debaltsevo, to the south-east.

In addition to the the 13 bodies seen earlier by their reporter Anastasiia Bereza, there are, as of 11:00 GMT, another 25 bodies in the Artyomovsk town morgue. 

The head of the morgue, Ruslan Fedonyuk, told Bereza that the bodies began arriving yesterday evening.

Semyon Semyonchenko, the commander of the Donbass Battalion, reported on his Facebook page that, as of 13:22 GMT, 167 wounded soldiers had been brought to Artyomovsk.

Ukrainian soldier Evgeniy Gorinov posted a photo of a damaged BTR-80 armoured personnel carrier that had come under fire while ferrying troops out of Debaltsevo.


He has reported numerous wounded soldiers being evacuated, some seriously injured. Russian-backed fighters are continuing to fire on the evacuating Ukrainian forces.

— Pierre Vaux

Poroshenko Announces That 80% Of Ukrainian Forces Have Left Debaltsevo; Convoys Coming Under Fire

President Petro Poroshenko has announced that the majority of Ukrainian troops in Debaltsevo have now left in an orderly withdrawal.

AFP reports that Poroshenko said:

“This morning the Ukrainian armed forces together with the National Guard completed an operation for a planned and organised withdrawal from Debaltseve. As of now we can say that 80 percent of our units have left. We are expecting another two columns (to leave).”

AFP journalists confirmed seeing large convoys of troops heading away from Debaltsevo.

AFP journalists saw dozens of Ukrainian tanks, armoured vehicles and trucks carrying soldiers driving away from Debaltseve.

The vehicles, carrying haggard-looking, unshaven troops, arrived in the nearby government-held town of Artemivsk, where one soldier confirmed that they had come from Debaltseve.

Anastasiia Bereza, a reporter for Ukraine’s Novoye Vremya and Ukrainska Pravda, posted photos of the withdrawal on her Facebook page:





Poroshenko claimed, in his announcement, that:

“Despite the fierce artillery bombardments, so far we have information that out of 2,000 Ukrainian troops we have 30 injured.”

Meanwhile Bereza reported from Artyomovsk that 13 dead soldiers had been brought from Debaltsevo and were being placed in coffins. She added that there were reports of around 20 dead.


Semyon Semyonchenko, the commander of the Donbass Battalion and a Rada deputy, wrote on his Facebook page that the withdrawing troops were under fire.

The Interpreter translates:

Received a report from the commander of a unit holding a front-line position on the “road of life” [the only Ukrainian-held route out] close to Debaltsevo. A column departing from Debaltsevo along the road was left without tank support. The terrorists’ tanks came up to their position and fired on the convoy at close range.

Our artillery and Grads are firing on the enemy tanks. The evacuation of wounded and recovery of the dead is under way. We’re holding the road.

— Pierre Vaux

Buzzfeed Displays Russian Tanks at Debaltsevo

As we reported earlier this week, Ruptly and Zvezda Russian state reporter Graham Phillips unwittingly revealed in a video from the front that Russian T-72 BM3 tanks were used to encircle Debaltsevo. These tanks can only come from Russia, as they are not exported, are not in the Ukrainian arsenal, are not sold by other countries to Ukraine, and were not sold in secret for four years to former president Viktor Yanukovych (all untrue alibis that Wilson and other Kremlin supporters have claimed.)

Max Avdeev, a photojournalist embedded with the separatists outside of Debaltsevo, has also provided evidence of these Russian tanks in photos published today by Buzzfeed.

In this photo, the marking  that looks like H-2-2-0-0 indicates that the vehicle came via the Russian rail system, which labels vehicles with the  Cyrrilic “N” and code for “non-standard” or wide load. The square insignia has also been associated with Russian units.


Russian armor has been spotted on rail cars in Rostov, such as in this video uploaded February 15, said to be in Rostov although it has not been geolocated.


Such convoys are driven across the border in Rostov into Ukraine where Russian fighters or Russian-backed separatists then drive them to battlefields. Many Ukrainian rail stations, including Debaltsevo, have been closed since last summer due to the war.

In at least two photos at Buzzfeed, the T-72s can be seen with the  kontakt-5 ERA reactive armor on the sides.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Ukrainian Journalist Reports Retreat from Debaltsevo

RBK Ukraine reports that Ukrainian forces have begun a retreat from Debaltsevo, where they have been encircled by Russian-backed separatists.

RBK cites journalist Andriy Tsaplienko’s Facebook page.

There, he has just one word: “We’re leaving.”


Many of his friends and followers greeted the news with approval, saying “it was about time” or “God speed,” as they believe Ukrainian forces cannot withstand the Russian-backed separatists.

Meanwhile a spokesman for the Ukrainian ATO [Anti-Terrorism Operation], Aleksandr Motuzyanyk said he could not “confirm or deny” the retreat.

Tsaplienko’s reference to Debaltsevo was unmistakeable, because 22 hours before this post, he wrote about the agony of Debaltsevo (translation by The Interpreter):

“Who went out?” “Who is left?” Getting answers to these difficult questions now is more important for me than learning whether we will hold Debaltsevo or not hold it. To this day, I didn’t know about the fate of these people with whom I had often spent the night, as they say, under one roof, in Debaltsevo. Now there’s no roof: the seps beat on their positions from all types of weapons – from mortars to self-propelled weapons to Uragan MLRS.

There was Macloud and Tolya Adamovsky. They remained to the end at their positions. There was no communicaiton with them. Tonight they began to leave the city in a column, in their Urals and BTRs. The 300s [wounded] covered themselves, there were a lot of wounded. The scout could determine a relatively safe channel for the exit. The guys broke into groups. Macloud’s group went second. Tolya followed them. They fell into an ambush. They lost a lot of armor in the battle. But they managed to break out. Macloud was wounded. Now he’s in the hospital, in Artyomovsk.

I only found out what happened to Tolya just now. He managed to get out a group of 7 people. I know that these people fought until the end. They couldn’t allow themselves to surrender. Macloud, under cover, worked under the nose of Girkin [Strelkov] in Slavyansk and learned the number of personnel in the fighters’ group. Tolya Adamovsky nearly died on Maidan. On February 20, 2014, a sniper’s bullet knocked out his hand, and now, like the Terminator in the movie, he is fighting with a metal bone under his skin and muscles.

Tolya’s life is harder and more terrible than a movie. But even so, I never saw a person on the front more kind than he. Tolya, Macloud, you’re alive, that’s the main thing. I am proud that I had the honor to know you. And what’s more. The corridor that the guys got out through has already closed.

Along with his dispatch from the front, Tsaplienko posted this photo of himself (center) and his two friends.


— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick