Ukraine Live Day 367: With Debaltsevo Lost, Russian-Backed Forces Press Attack Near Mariupol

February 19, 2015
Ukrainian soldiers retreating from Debaltsevo on February 18, 2015 | Photo: Anastasiia Bereza

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 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?

Continuing to Assess Casualties At Debaltsevo

We continue our look into how many casualties the Ukrainian military suffered in the defeat in Debaltsevo, but all signs suggest that the body count is much higher than the official numbers.
James Miller
Ukrainian Soldiers Fleeing Debaltsevo Say They Need Artillery, “There Was No Corridor”

This video, taken by Hromadske TV, shows some of the Ukrainian soldiers as they fled Debaltsevo. The soldiers all tell a similar tale.

One says that less than half of their battalion is left after the fight. Another says “there is no corridor. The enemy were waiting to ambush us,” again contradicting the official Ukrainian government position that the troops were not encircled. Another, when asked if they were told to come here, said “no, we just decided to come ourselves,” another example of a soldier who says that Poroshenko did not order the retreat. Several other soldiers said this yesterday, contradicting statements from the Ukrainian President.

At several points in the video, the road is littered with Ukrainian vehicles that were destroyed, stuck, or otherwise disabled in the retreat.


Some of the soldiers are seen moving back into the town to retrieve those who were left behind.

At one point an armored vehicles has had a car accident with a truck. At another a severely injured soldier is lying on the ground after he fell out of his vehicle. Some of the equipment has obvious battle damage.

One of the officers who is speaking to the press says “I personally want to say that authorities should give more attention to the Debaltsevo area.”

Toward the end of the video, a very angry doctor says that his morgue is full, excess bodies are being stored outside in coffins (10 boxes are visible, 4 more casualties are in body bags), and his morgue has not received any funding since the summer.

James Miller

“Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished!”
In the latest in our series marking the anniversary of the Euromaidan Revolution and the crisis in Ukraine, Lilia Shevtsova, of the Brookings Institute, writes that Ukraine’s
quest for democracy came at a time where the West is unwilling or unable
to support it while Russia, entering into an “advanced state of decay,”
is trying “to re-energize itself and test the readiness of the West to
defend its principles.”

But at the same time the threat to [Ukraine’s] statehood
has become a powerful mechanism that galvanizes the birth of the new,
European national identity and the building of a new Ukrainian nation.
In some sense Ukrainians with their longing for dignity are already more
Europeans than many old Europeans!

Read the entire article here.

How Many Soldiers Did Ukraine Lose During Yesterday’s Withdrawal From Debaltsevo?

In our last update, the Ukrainian NSDC said that “14 Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 172 got wounded in the last 24 hours.” Though this number is very high, it does not match other reports.

In remarks made yesterday, President Poroshenko said that only 30 soldiers were wounded in the withdrawal. As we noted, however, soldiers interviewed right after the battle put those numbers much higher. Some of them were reporting that more than half of their units did not make it out of the “Debaltsevo kettle.”  Novoye Vremya reported that 38 soldiers were witnessed by one of their reports in Artyomovsk, and the commander of the volunteer Donbass Battalion,  Semyon Semyonchenko, said that 167 wounded soldiers had been brought to the town (see our update here). And there are various reports that hundreds of soldiers may have been captured and hundreds more are missing.

Now there are new casualty numbers emerging:

There remains a significant fog of war on the issue of the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed, wounded, missing, or captured at Debaltsevo. The Ukrainian government has been opaque at best about the true extent of the fighting. One thing is clear, however — all the soldiers and witnesses describe a desperate struggle to flee from the town as they were under heavy fire from Russian firepower and Russian proxies. This was not the organized retreat which the Ukrainian President described yesterday.

And we are even less likely to get an accurate estimate of the amount of Russian-backed separatists and Russian soldiers killed in the fight. Though clearly this was a significant defeat for Ukraine, the Russian government and its proxies have ensured that their own losses remain as secret as possible.

James Miller

Russia Rejects the Call For International Peacekeepers

Many were surprised last night when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called for the international community to send peacekeepers into eastern Ukraine. Many said it was a recognition that the Ukrainian government could not defend its country against Russian aggression, while others noted that the only peacekeeping mission even possible would have to be through the United Nations, an effort Russia would have to approve.

Today it is clear that Russia does not approve. RFE/RL reports:

Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said the truce agreement signed in Minsk last week should remain the basis for the conflict’s resolution.

He also said Kyiv was responsible for making sure the accords were carried out.

Russian-backed separatist leader Denis Pushilin earlier said the presence of peacekeepers would “violate” the Minsk agreement.

James Miller

Ukraine Says Fighting Continues, And Not Just Near Debaltsevo

Russia and its proxies believe that the Ukrainian troops should have surrendered at Debaltsevo under the Minsk deal, whereas everyone else at the Minsk summit believes that Russia and its proxies violated the ceasefire by attacking Ukrainian troops at Debaltsevo.

However, this disagreement, disingenuous as it may be, still does not explain why there is fighting in multiple areas of Ukraine today. Here are some highlights from the briefing from the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council:

Pisky is west of Donetsk airport, not particularly close to the Debaltsevo “kettle.”
Shirokino is east of Mariupol, on the Azov sea. As we’ve reported below, the area has been heavily attacked today. One interesting detail which we’re still looking into — some of that attack came “from the sea,” according to a military spokesperson in the area. There has been evidence for some time that this area has been coveted by the Russians and the Russian-backed proxies as it is a key coastal town, important for economic and strategic reasons. There has also been plenty of speculation that now that the battles for Donetsk Airport and Debaltsevo are over, this area could be the next key battle. Either way, the fighting here is a clear violation of the Minsk accord, by any definition.
James Miller
Ukrainian Forces Attacked East Of Mariupol, Naval Shelling Reported

The Ukrainian military is reporting heavy shelling on their positions in the village of Shirokino, where Russian-backed forces have counter-attacked after Ukraine retook the town last week. One Ukrainian fighter is reported to have been killed and another wounded.

Interfax-Ukraine reports that Anatoliy Stelmakh, an army spokesman, announced this morning:

“Shyrokyne has been bombed practically round-the-clock. There have been 13 mortar and artillery attacks over the past day. Besides, the enemy has used tanks. We can say that Shyrokyne has become the epicenter of the hostilities.”

Intriguingly, Novosti Donbassa reports that Dmitry Chaly, a press officer of the Mariupol area of military operations, said today that Ukrainian forces had been shelled yesterday, “not far from Mariupol,” “from the sea.”

Chaly did not, it appears, expand any further on this, and Stelmakh, Ukrainska Pravda reports, said that there were no reports of shelling from the sea “at this time.”

While Chaly is reported to have said the shelling was conducted by militants, this seems unlikely as the separatists have no naval assets, nor even a port to launch from. If the incident Chaly describes did in fact occur, the attack could only have been conducted by Russian naval forces.

That Kiev would be hesitant in confirming such a report from the front is unsurprising

On August 31, two Ukrainian coastal patrol boats were attacked off Mariupol. Video of the incident clearly suggest aircraft of some kind had carried out the attack:

However when The Interpreter spoke to Andriy Lysenko, the spokesman for the National Security and Defence Council, he denied the use of aircraft, claiming that the ships had been struck by weapons launched from the shore.

It appears that, despite video evidence of aircraft attacking the ships, Kiev was wary of stating that Russia’s air force was carrying out strikes. Recently, there has been similar reluctance to confirm multiple reports from soldiers and journalists of air strikes against Ukrainian positions near Debaltsevo on February 9.

— Pierre Vaux