By coincidence, at 8 p.m. on February 11, 2015 when the Russian tanks have destroyed the convoy with wounded Ukrainian servicemen near the village of Lohvynove (suburb of Debaltseve), the urgent round of Russia-Ukraine talks began in Belorussian capital Minsk with participation of Germany’s Chancellor and President of France. It was the second diplomacy effort to stop Russian aggression against the former Soviet republic Ukraine after Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula in February 2014 and defeated the Ukrainian troops at the city of Ilovaisk in eastern Donbas region. That day was full of hopes for me and the 40th infantry battalion, where I served, as an active duty officer. We in Debaltseve were getting encircled by the joint Russian-separatist forces. We sat in the frozen trenches, behind concrete walls, repelling non-stop attacks and hiding from intensive artillery shelling.
All our encouragement was from listening to news reports on shortwave radios about a ceasefire to be introduced from midnight. However, I wasn’t naive about Putin – at that moment he has already sent a lot of weapons and forces to eastern Ukraine, so ceasefire wasn’t clearly an option for him. Politicians agreed in Minsk to introduce ceasefire not from February 12, but 3 days later – and it didn’t actually surprise me. And I expected, the enemy forces have already received Putin’s order to capture the major railway hub of Debaltseve at any cost.
Early in the morning of February 12, I had been collecting my personal belongings to leave my room and hide in the underground shelter. It was too risky to stay on the 2nd floor of the building. The artillery shelling intensified and salvos had been exploding around our camp almost every hour. The encirclement was becoming an imminent threat. (My room was destroyed right the next day, as I wrote in earlier parts of this Debaltseve Diary).
In that morning I simply didn’t know that in 10 km to the north the Ukrainian army has formed the assault group to re-capture the strategic village of Lohvynove on M-103 and renew supplies of our isolated formation. Meanwhile, Russian propaganda via SMSs had impact on combat readiness of about 2,500 Ukrainian servicemen in Debaltseve area. Rumors have been heavily circulating among soldiers that “Kyiv abandoned us” and “we should surrender”. We just didn’t know that higher commanders in Kyiv did their best to support and save us.
That day the Ukrainian anti-terrorist operation’s HQ collected available reserves to recapture Lohvynove: a couple of units of the 30th Brigade from Zhytomyr and the 24th from Lviv, several units of the 79th Airborne Brigade from Mykolaiv, the unit of the Donbas volunteer battalion of the National Guard, as well as dozen of tanks of the 1st Brigade from Chernihiv and 92nd Brigade from Kharkiv. The operation was planned by young commanders of the 30th Brigade, including Lt. Col. Serhiy Sobko, and it promised to be successful.
At 8 a.m. February 12 the Ukrainian army launched the counter attack at the Russian-separatist forces. During the first 20 minutes of the tank battle ate Lohvynove Ukrainians destroyed 8 tanks of the Russian 5th Brigade from Buriatia (region in Siberia). As it became known later, that was the first tank battle between Ukrainian and Russian armies during the almost year-long military conflict in Donbas. In that operation Ukrainians tested their upgraded tanks T-64BM ‘Bulat’, which not only survived, but destroyed lots of enemy armor. It’s also remarkable that Ukraine’s servicemen lost less armor than Russians: just 4 tanks and an APC.
The unit of the Ukrainian 1st Tank Brigade with their combat vehicles should have been protecting the left flank of the attack, as Capt. Olexander Moroz said to the ‘Censor’ website later. But they couldn’t defend the tank of the 30th Brigade, which had been destroyed in the open field the crew, including a Soldier Vitaliy Kharitoniuk, 19 and a Sr. Sergeant Dmytro Sushchuk, 24. Using open source information, I can explain how they died.
In the middle of the snowy field under one of the broken electricity supply towers their tank drove over the land mine and exploded. It didn’t make the last 150-200 meters to the village to hide. Later, separatists have buried the body of Kharitoniuk near the rests of his tank, and volunteers found it in March. The neighbors of the young soldier honorably re-buried him in his Chetvertnia village in the western Volyn region.
So, the attack should let Ukrainian troops to enter the village from 3 directions. But only 2 of 3 designated units entered it, including that under command of Sr. Lt. Volodymyr Gryniuk. This young officer has already visited this place covertly on February 9 for intelligence purposes, but underestimated the enemy capabilities. He didn’t expect that Russians will send extra armor, and their artillery will effectively target this area. During the February 12 operation, Gryniuk destroyed 3 armored personal carriers, killed about 30 militants, but was wounded.
His 30th Brigade failed to capture this village. It happened mostly because of artillery fire and lack of resupply: the 79th Airborne Brigade was stopped by Russian tanks and the 24th Motorized Brigade didn’t get to the village and communication with them was lost. Moreover, Ukrainians destroyed not all Russian tanks in Lohvynove – one more armored unit had been hiding near the river stream, waiting for the counter attack. At the same time, Russian mortars didn’t let Ukrainian troops to rise their heads and continue operation. Russian artillery divisions were located too far from this battlefield, and Gryniuk’s unit couldn’t geolocate them to request the strike in return – Lt. Col. Serhiy Sobko from the 30th Brigade confirmed this to the ‘Censor’ website on September 8, 2015.
So, in the afternoon of February 12 both Ukrainian and Russian-separatist forces tooak a break in this blitz fighting for the tiny, but so important village. Both assault formations were uncertain about the outcome. Ukrainian tanks had been standing on the hills around and gained control over the battlefield, but the Ukrainian infantry was blocked inside the village. Additionally, Kyiv soldiers have been hesitating to continue their attack, because they heard sounds of Russian tank engines in front of them near the small river. And the Ukrainian tanks and mortars couldn’t reach those enemy anks.
As it is known from military tactics, the infantry can’t fully rely on tank capabilities during combat operations on the not flat territory, which is full of hills and river streams. And in the case of Lohvynove, Ukrainians urgently needed more troops on the field. But they didn’t have reserves and poorly implemented combat operations! Both 79th and 24th Brigades didn’t get to the village! And the so-called “human factor” had the extra impact on the combat readiness. As Lt. Col. Sobko mentioned in his interview, his 30th Motorized Brigade was exhausted by non-stop operations in previous months: they lost many well-prepared soldiers and sergeants, who were replaced by poorly-trained reservists. According to available information, 5 servicemen of that brigade have been killed in action at Lohvynove: 2 tankists (I mentioned them above), and 41 year-old Capt. Olexiy Komarov as well as 23 year-old Sgt. Volodymyr Shulga and Sr. Soldier Andiy Braukh.
Before the sun went down, the Ukrainian military command ordered troops to retreat from the disputed village. The decision was clear – no sense to keep the brave units there without reinforcement. “If just one battalion would follow us in Lohvynove, we would unblock the strategic M-103 road,” said Captain Olexander Moroz from the 1st Tank Brigade in his interview for Censor. “No reserves approached, so in the evening we began retreating and came back.”
But the retreat wasn’t an easy walk. The remaining 7-8 Russian tanks emerged from the hiding spots and stared firing. “When tanks went on us, we had to leave with 1 KIA and 3 WIA including me,” explained Sr. Lt. Volodymyr Gryniuk.
Now I’d like to focus on violations of secrecy by the other Ukrainian commander, whose unit also took part in Lohvynove operation. I’m talking about Col. from the volunteer ‘Donbas’ battalion under pseudo ‘Semen Semenchenko’. On February 12, he shared several posts about the battle on his Facebook page. In the afternoon he reported on Facebook that anti-terrorist forces have been already liberated this village. It wasn’t actually true.
However, the ‘Donbas’ battalion, which was a part of the police forces under command of the minister of internal affairs Arsen Avakov, fought there indeed – with own tanks and light infantry arms. For example, their 27 year-old soldier Andriy Kaminskiy destroyed Russian APC, but was killed later in the battle. This young Ukrainian soldier sacrificed himself just a week before his scheduled wedding, as the local newspaper ‘Gorod’ from his native city of Dniprodzerzhynsk reported on February 25. The Russian tank hit their truck, and Andriy died in gasoline flames while trying to save life of his wounded comrade. Generally saying, the ‘Donbas’ unit got ambushed in Lohvynove, and had to retreat from the village, divided in two groups. The main group survived (with captured militants), but the rest of 5 servicemen has been killed. The ‘Donbas’ battalion also lost 2 tanks and a truck.
Russian tanks stopped also the renowned Ukrainian 79th Airborne Brigade, as I already mentioned above. Due to lack of open information about their defeat in this battle, I found some details in the article of the Ivano-Frankivsk newspaper “Bliz-Info”, in the article of local newspaper “Golos Snigurivshchyny” from the southern Mykolayiv region, and in the lists of killed Ukrainian servicemen on the volunteer website “Memory Book”. The 79th Brigade lost at least two officers: 35 year-old Sr. Lt. Igor Morkvas and 47 year-old Volodymyr Suslik, who also fought for Donetsk airport just a month before.
So, the operation of the Ukrainian forces to re-capture the village of Lohvynove didn’t bring results – unblocking the strategic M-103 MSR from the Ukraine-controlled Artemivsk to encircled Debaltseve. It failed due to lack of available reserves, proper intelligence, communication and coordination, and moreover – refusal of some units of mobilized reservists to go fighting. But at least Ukraine troops destroyed 8 Russian tanks of the Russian 5th Brigade from Buriatia (in Russian Siberia region), several their APCs, killed more than 50 separatist militants and mercenaries (including Russian army regulars) and captured 12-17 of them as well.
True heroism was in that battle too. A Sr. Lt. Vasyl Bozhko from the 79th Airborne Brigade personally destroyed 3 Russian tanks and many militants (for which he received the honorable title of the Hero of Ukraine on October 15, 2015). Two officers from the 30th Brigade became Heroes of Ukraine for this battle too: Lt. Col. Serhiy Sobko and Capt. Volodymyr Gryniuk.