Debaltseve Diary 22: Counter Attack At Lohvynove

Lohvynove Donbas eastern Ukraine road
The road near Lohvynove village in February 2015. Screenshot from video.

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.

woman Lohvynove Debalsteve eastern Ukraine road war conflict
Women walks on the M-103 road in Lohvynove village, carrying water, in January 2015. My photo.

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.

Ukrainian natk destroyed
The destroyed tank in the village of Lohvynove in March 2015. Screenshot from video.

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.

Ukrainian tank war Debalsteve
The destroyed tank of the Ukrainian 30th Brigade near Lohvynove village. Photo from LiveJournal.

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.

APC armor Debaltseve Donbas Lohvynove destroyed
The destroyed APC near the village of Lohvynove. Screenshot from video.

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.

Donbas battalion tanks Ukraine war conflict
Tanks of the Ukrainian volunteer battalion ‘Donbas’. Photo from Facebook.

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.

Debaltseve Diary 21: First Days of “Encirclement”

Road post Cross at Debaltseve Ukraine
Entrance to Debaltseve. My photo in January 2015.

After capturing Lohvynove village and cutting the M-03 main supply route (MSR), illegal groups of armed separatists (supported by Russian Army regulars) took a major step towards encircling the city of Debaltseve, defended by large numbers of Ukrainian troops. Belligerent Russian propaganda media reports were already celebrating the encirclement as de facto, but the Ukrainian command insisted the enemy had only gained fire superiority over the supply routes. At any rate, over the next eight days (starting from 10 February), the supply of 2,500-plus Ukrainian troops in the Debaltseve area became difficult and dangerous.

Nevertheless, Ukrainian counter-attacks to regain control of the strategic village of Lohvynove continued (even after the successful withdrawal from Debaltseve), but the snow-bound terrain of hills, forests and frozen streams between Debaltseve and the key Ukrainian strongholds of Luhanske and Myronivskyi, gave the enemy time to organize an effective defence of Lohvynove. Meanwhile, the threat of encirclement at Debaltseve was rising daily with each new delivery of separatists, mercenaries and Russian armour.

The Russian General Staff quickly sent several fresh detachments directly from the Rostov region. According to the blog of volunteer Oleh Yarchuk, which shares intercepted classified reports of the Russian Army, they sent the 25th SpetsNaz Regiment of 49th Army, plus a group from 136th Infantry Brigade (both detachments belong to the Southern Command). But most importantly, Russia sent the whole tank battalion (up to thirty-one tanks) of 5th Tank Brigade, relocated from Ulan-Ude in Buriatia (a republic in Siberia). At least ten tanks and an APC with a hundred troops entered Lohvynove on the first day. On March 2, 2015 the badly wounded Buriat tank-crewman, Dorzhi Batomunkuev, confirmed this for the Russian newspaper “Novaya Gazeta”.

Ukrainian artillery shelled the captured area every day, helping convoys break through enemy lines via open fields. But no accurate data exists to show how many convoys successfully delivered arms and personnel to isolated Ukrainian units; or indeed how many of them were destroyed.

It is known, however, that on the evening of February 11, a truck carrying wounded soldiers from 128th Brigade broke through enemy lines to the hospital at Artemivsk. This success confirmed that “encirclement” was not yet complete. But during their dark journey through snowy fields, these Ukrainians survived the nightmare of direct enemy fire, which hit a second truck, killing thirteen of their comrades. This episode was confirmed by the deputy commander of 128th Brigade, Yevhen Bondar, for Hromadske TV. We now know that the T-72 tanks from Buriatia were equipped with night-vision targeting systems and the Russian tank crews had orders to kill.

The truck, that survived, carried a Sergeant of my 40th Battalion – Mykola Belyma, aged 29, from the Cherkassy region. He made it to the hospital alive, but died from wounds later. We, in our battalion, tried to evacuate the wounded as soon as possible – with help of other detachments – but it wasn’t easy:

“We have already got six wounded comrades, and one of them is in a critical condition. We urgently need to evacuate them, because their condition is worsening. They should be evacuated immediately. I understand that the MSR is cut at Lohvynove, but we must find a solution,” I reported from Debaltseve to “C” Sector command on February 11.

“We’ll connect you to the Sector’s chief doctor,” they replied.

I waited several minutes, and several times I tried to call back, as military communications were partially jammed. Our battalion’s chief medic, Sergeant Roman Pecheniuk, aged 44 from the Kirovograd region, was standing nearby, also waiting for advice. At that moment he was the only qualified doctor left in the whole battalion. Every day, under enemy shelling, he visited our strongholds to collect those wounded. He was anxious about their condition, because he was down to the last thirty doses of pain killers.

Finally the chief doctor of “C” Sector picked up the phone. I described the situation and suggested maybe asking the Red Cross, OCSE or other international organizations to help secure the evacuation of wounded soldiers. I felt that he understood the gravity of the situation, as he confirmed that yes, they would do everything possible. But the immediate solution was to gather all the wounded in the camp of 128th Brigade. At least they had more doctors and more medicine. I put down the phone and looked at Roman:

“Move them to 128th Brigade. All our wounded should be there. They will evacuate them,” I said.

“But the road is cut! And we all are virtually encircled . . .”

“Then they will try to find a route,” I replied.

“Oh, my God!”

Then we climbed up from the shelter and out onto the street to gasp some fresh winter air. Russian artillery actively shelled Debaltseve round the clock, so even this “luxury” was fraught with danger. Roman ran to another building to pick up those wounded. I put my encrypted radio into the pocket of my body-armour vest, and remained outside for several minutes, listening to the voices of comrades, reporting to me from various strongholds. I realized that if Roman, our only doctor, was to be wounded, then the whole battalion would face a critical situation.

In the other pocket of my vest I had an ordinary long-wave radio, for listening to news from around the world – the only radio frequencies not effectively jammed by the Russian Army. I took it out, turned it on, and heard the voice of the Ukrainian ATO spokesman:

“Debaltseve is still a hot spot on the front line in eastern Ukraine. Today, from the morning, terrorist forces shelled it fourteen times with high-calibre artillery. Infrastructure and many buildings have been ruined. Today, websites of so-called ‘Novorussia’ declared the encirclement of Ukrainians in Debaltseve. But the press centre of the anti-terrorist operation emphasises that all such reports are fake and aimed to create panic and distrust among Ukrainian troops.”

“There is no encirclement. This is the deception and outright fakery of those who desire it. Our troops in Debaltseve continue to receive supplies. We communicate and interact. More troops will be deployed there as planned,” assured the defence minister, Stepan Poltorak.

“We had some difficulties delivering ammunition, but today we found new ways to do it,” said the General Staff speaker.

Our battalion doctor, Roman, survived the long battle for Debaltseve. We asked the High Command to award him the Order for Bravery. The wounded evacuee, Sergeant Mykola Belyma, whom I mentioned earlier, also got his Order for Bravery. But too late. He died from wounds on February 18, on the day our battalion left Debaltseve.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Diary 20: The Capture of Lohvynove

Russian Regulars Take the Lead

Starting from 1 February 2015, Russian-led “Separatist” forces began their operation to capture the М-03 main supply route (MSR), connecting the cities of Debaltseve and Artemivsk. Previously, they had managed to wrest back the key Ukrainian stronghold of Vuhlegirsk, near the city of Horlivka, on our western flank. In order to suppress Ukrainian military capabilities, and dominate M-03, they advanced their artillery and began bombarding the road daily, limiting safe transit there. As a result, starting from early February, the Ukrainian Anti-Terrorism Operation (ATO) HQ closed this corridor to all except military traffic. However, shelling by enemy artillery was often random, so Ukrainian convoys still had a chance to drive back and forth without significant loss.

With the fall of Vuhlegirsk our western flank developed a dangerous hole. The situation was critical because no Ukrainian positions now remained to safeguard M-03, while the terrain—covered with ravines, streams and small forests—permitted enemy forces to advance unseen. Much later, on 29 August, talking to the Mirror of the Week newspaper, Colonel-General Victor Muzhenko (head of the General Staff) said that Ukrainian forces had only a small monitoring post on the MSR, consisting of 54 Intelligence Battalion (with an APC) in the village of Lohvynove.

Lohvynove village Debaltseve Ukraine map
Lohvynove on a map.

At 5am on 9 February (after a week of bombardments) a SpecOps unit of the Head Intelligence Department of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” made for Lohvynove, via the village of Kalynivka. This unit effectively blocked the MSR with anti-tank mines & wooden obstacles and entered Lohvynove. Four Ukrainian monitors from 54 Battalion reported this enemy sortie to C Sector HQ before bugging out.

As it is well known from the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the village of Lohvynove and M-03 were first captured by a squad of some thirty fighters, 90 per cent of whom were experienced mercenaries from the Russian Federation, led by a Russian military officer, Serhey Petrovsky. Open-source data suggests the Russian 52 Spetsnaz Regiment was available to aid attacks on both Vuhlehirsk and Lohvynove. Russian state media rushed two TV crews to film this success and spread the propaganda message that “local separatists have closed the lid on the Debaltseve boiler” all on their own. Actually they had done no such thing: the Russians only cut the MSR in one place and entered a small village, so these media announcements were false. After the propaganda footage was filmed, the Russian unit quit Lohvynove, leaving local rebels and volunteer Cossacks (from Russia’s Don region) to guard the road. Meanwhile, regular Russian forces, including tanks of the 5th Brigade (hailing from Ulan-Ude in Russia’s Buriatia region), were hurrying up to Lohvynove via the newly created hole.

For six hours in a row, C Sector HQ did not officially warn Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve that the MSR had been cut, despite 54 Battalion’s report. I heard about this unexplained delay from Colonel Ihor Shcherbyna of my 40 Battalion, who visited C Sector HQ early that morning (for more on him, please read my #18 and #19 diary installments). Now I could only assume that the Debaltseve-based HQ was trying to avoid panic among 2,600 de-facto-encircled soldiers—mostly inexperienced reservists. Probably, HQ was also seeking solid confirmation from intelligence, and exploring all available responses. But every minute of delay cost the lives of Ukrainian soldiers and medics. During the whole morning of 9 February, the enemy was easily picking off stranded Ukrainians, as well as capturing the wounded.

The Morning of Executions

That morning was foggy and frosty on the outskirts of Debaltseve. Visibility on the ice-bound M-03 road—hidden between forests and hills—was down to just 100 metres. Radio communications were unstable between Debaltseve and Myronivske, while local cell-phone transmitters had been destroyed a week ago. And so Ukrainian convoys were approaching the village blind, deaf, and unaware they were entering a trap from which there was little hope of escape. Six long hours of slaughter had begun …

M-03 road near Lohvynove Ukraine
M-03 road near Lohvynove. Screenshot from Russian TV.

During the first hour, four servicemen from 128 Brigade’s rocket-artillery squadron were killed on the road near Lohvynove. Their ZiL and URAL trucks, fully loaded with ammunition, were stopped by rifle fire. The Ukrainians were driving from Artemivsk ammunition depot and did not reach their base, just 5 kilometres from the spot where they died. Among those killed were the commanders of two artillery units: Major Alex Hurtov and Senior Lieutenant Vasyl Bilak, together with the drivers, Sergeant Roman Chornobai and Soldier Roman Sovlych. As a consequence of this, urgently needed mortar shells and MLRS rockets were not delivered, and for ten days the Ukrainian artillery around Debaltseve was short of ammo: “We can lob a couple of shells there …” they would respond to our requests for fire support.

The next tragedy to hit the Ukrainian Army was the execution of four high-ranking officers, who were carrying classified General Staff documents and secret radio equipment in a UAZ jeep. At 5am they left the city of Artemivsk and—already shrouded in a communication black-out—drove 60 kilometres directly to their deaths. High speed can bestow a high chance of survival during random bombardments, but on 9 February terrorists shot up their speedy jeep right in front of the video cameras. At the last moment the driver, Sergeant Junor A. Makarenko, slammed the steering wheel hard right to avoid mines, dispersed on the road, but the car drove into a ditch with Colonel Ihor Pavlov (a tutor at the military college of Kyiv Technical University), Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Muzyka (from the Communications Department of the General Staff), as well as Colonel Serhyi Tsyganok and Major Sviatoslav Vasylenko (both from 330 Army Postal Unit).

M-03 road Lohvynove Debaltseve Russians
Russia-led fighters search Ukrainian car in Lohvynove. Screenshot from Russian TV.

Immediately prior to this, 47-year-old college tutor Colonel Ihor Pavlov had been appointed 1st Deputy to the Chief of the Anti-Terror Operation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The masked Russian commander of the so-called “DNR” SpecOps unit proudly posed before the TV cameras with the Colonel’s ID and a copy of his appointment order. The video footage showing the humiliation of the bleeding Pavlov and his counterpart, Tsyganok, is still on YouTube. They were searched, beaten, kicked with boots, and intimidated. “You will yet pay for everything!” said Colonel Pavlov in pain to the masked fighter, who—speaking with a clear Russian accent—points a Kalashnikov rifle at his chest, threatening execution.

Russian propaganda TV did not publish the exact moment of execution of those captured at Lohvynove. But we can assume the killings were conducted there, or in other places where POWs might be delivered for interrogation and then left to die. In March, “Separatists” released the corpses of three of the above-mentioned officers. But the fate of Major Vasylenko and Sergeant Makarenko remains unknown. In this context I should emphasize that according to information published by different anonymous bloggers, including Russians and those close to “Separatist” forces, mercenaries of the “DNR” SpecOps unit are not only experienced fighters (which they demonstrated in Vuhlegirsk and Lohvynove) but also barbarians in their treatment of Ukrainian POWs.

The next Ukrainian officer to be killed on M-03 was Major Mykyta Nedovodiev, from the Kyiv-based 101 Brigade of military police. At 8am he and a soldier, Vadym Fedorchenko, left Debaltseve in a KamAZ truck, driving to Kharkiv. There is no info on the circumstances of their killing. I can only assume they got shot the same way as the others, on the MSR or on a path near the village. A Russian photographer Max Avdeev—who, on 17 February, published on BuzzFeed photos from Lohvynove—saw many wrecked and burned-out trucks in the area, one of which is allegedly Nedovodiev’s KamAZ.

Lohvynove village
Photo by Max Avdeev, BuzzFeed.

At least eight servicemen of 30 Brigade (from the town of Novo-Volynsk, Zhytomyr region) became the next victims of the Kalashnikov-toting specialists, hunting Ukrainians on the road. In two trucks, the eight Ukrainians left Debaltseve and soon got trapped. Forty-year-old Senior Lieutenant Serhyi Romanchuk (a volunteer of the first-wave draft—due to be discharged from the Army in just two weeks), 42-year-old Sergeant Serhyi Sukhenko, and 34-year-old soldier Serhyi Lialevych, were killed at once. Three others—43-year-old APC commander Vasyl Demchuk, Sergeant Pavlo Platsynskyi (who had celebrated his 37th birthday the day before) and 34-year-old Soldier Alex Berdes—were captured and executed. The execution was filmed on video and uploaded to the Web but later removed. “Separatists” buried two of the corpses near the village, but the devastated body of Vasyl Demchuk—with smashed head and minus an ear—was later found in a Donetsk mortuary. The 45-year-old Senior Sergeant Yevhen Korota (a volunteer of the third-wave draft from Luhansk region), and 36-year-old Soldier Vitalyi Katishov, were allegedly killed in the second ZiL truck. However, at the mourning ceremony, Korota’s friend, Alex Klymchuk, told the local Kyiv newspaper that he died not on 9 February but three days later. Inconsistencies surrounding the death-dates of servicemen are common during intense battles (such as those around Debaltseve in February 2015), as it is obviously hard for commanders to register multiple daily losses.

Allegedly ZiL truck of 30 Brigade in Lohvynove. Screenshot from Russian TV.

Unfortunately, the tragic morning of 9 February also took the lives of six Ukrainian medics. Initially, an ambulance of Khmenitsky Medic Squadron—hurrying up from Debaltseve to save those wounded on M-03—drove over a mine while taking incoming fire, killing 48-year-old Senior Soldier Anatolyi Sulyma and 25-year-old Soldier Mykhailo Baliuk. Colleagues later said that their corpses had gunshot wounds to the neck and head.

As soon as communication with Sulyma and Baliuk was lost, the group of Lviv rescuers of 1 Pyrohov Medical Squadron of the National Guard rushed to the rescue from Artemivsk. Members of that group knew the road was under constant enemy shelling, but they didn’t know about the new enemy roadblock and ambush. In a jeep, with an APC following behind, they drove over 55 kilometres south along M-03, looking for wounded or stranded comrades. But at the entrance to Lohvynove the jeep drove over a mine and exploded, wounding Captain Taras Konchevych, a 50-year-old soldier named Vasyl Zadorozhnyi, and two medics: 49-year-old Dmytro Lahunov and 49-year-old Maxim Ovcharuk. The medics following in the APC opened fire at the enemy ambush, killing one fighter. But a sudden mortar bombardment forced them to retreat, leaving four comrades to be killed.

Supply Routes are Blocked

Around 10am, the thick fog over Lohvynove lifted. No further Ukrainian units were approaching the village via M-03, and everything around fell silent. The bodies of Ukrainian servicemen were lying in ditches on both sides of the MSR, and their wrecked trucks were still smoking. Thus, the Russian mercenaries of the so-called “DNR” fully enjoyed their revenge on the “fascists”—as the Kremlin propaganda machine calls Ukrainian government troops—and retreated with their video fixers.

After the Russian squad departed, local “Separatists” and Russian Don Cossacks began collecting the corpses and building defence lines around the captured village. They were waiting for ammo trucks, as well as dozens of tanks, recently relocated from Russia (quite candidly). Inside the concrete pavilion, under a big “Lohvynove” sign at the bus stop on M-03, the fighters breakfasted on food lifted from the Ukrainian military vehicles: salads, bread, lard, fish and meat preserves, cookies, candies, etc. A couple of wounded rebels needed first aid and asked a woman in filthy clothes to give them anaesthesia shots: “I didn’t bring anything like that. You told me we were just going to check this area!” she replied to the wounded, appearing to be an inhabitant of the village who had guided them in.

At 11am, 2,600 Ukrainian troops inside Debaltseve finally got a radio warning from C Sector HQ: “Stop using the M-03! It’s allegedly blocked. Limit your radio conversations, because it’s suspected that radio devices are captured. Block or re-code any lost devices.” The “Separatists”, enjoying their breakfast at the bus stop in Lohvynove, heard this warning and joyfully realized they had time to build their stronghold: Ukrainian troops would not be able to counter-attack for the next few days.

By some unexplained circumstance, a group of four servicemen from my 40 Battalion, along with the deputy commander, Lieutenant Colonel Volodymyr Sarychev, who were going to Artemivsk that morning, were not warned. Around 10.30am they drove out of our main camp at Debaltseve in a UAZ Patriot jeep and joined the M-03. As I wrote in the 8th installment of this Debaltseve Diary, communication with them was soon lost. The relaxed, after-breakfast “Separatists” (left to their own devices on the departure of their brutal Russian leaders) didn’t kill these Ukrainians on the road, but merely stopped and captured them. They took the jeep and sent the group of POWs to the occupied city of Luhansk.

C Sector HQ, the Anti-Terror Operation, and the General Staff urgently needed accurate data on enemy forces in Lohvynove. But military intelligence structures in the Debaltseve area didn’t work as fast or as reliably as they should; which was later confirmed by the head of the General Staff, Colonel-General Viktor Muzhenko, on 29 August, in his interview for Mirror of the Week: “We didn’t possess clear information that time from our intelligence. We changed the chief of Head Intelligence Department, because we didn’t receive enough volumes of required data.” This explains why the Ukrainian Army immediately sent a small reconnaissance unit to Lohvynove, led by the brave Senior Lieutenant Volodymyr Hryniuk with four servicemen from 30 and 54 Battalions: “Our commander [Hryniuk] described that operation as ‘a walk’, but we were returning from there under heavy bombardments,” recalled a soldier nicknamed “Hibbon” for the Censor News website on 14 October.

The shelling of Lohvynove on 9 February was not only carried out by “Separatist” forces, but Ukrainian artillery too. After receiving authenticated info from the reconnaissance unit, Ukrainian artillerists conducted two massive bombardments of Lohvynove and Vuhlehirsk, in order to destroy enemies and prevent their reinforcement.

It was interesting for me to watch the work of the artillery (when it didn’t target us, of course). On the evening of 9 February, in complete darkness, I observed the shelling of Lohvynove from the roof of my battalion camp in Debaltseve: flashes and loud explosions on the northern horizon; 20–30 seconds between flash and explosion indicated a distance of 7–9 kilometres—and Lohvynove was indeed located at such a distance from us. However, bombardments caused only partial losses among the enemy troops, several of which were forced to relocate, as reported next day by a coordinator of the Information Resistance volunteer group (and member of the Ukrainian Parliament), Dmytro Tymchuk.

Meanwhile, at Debaltseve, Kramatorsk and Kyiv, generals and colonels were designing the “A Plan” for regaining control of Lohvynove, and looking for reserves to carry the plan into action. There was no hope of finding reserves within the blockaded Debaltseve formation of 2,600 personnel, because this would weaken the flanks of the defence line, through which “diversion groups” of masked Russian regulars were already infiltrating.

On 29 August, in his interview for the Mirror of The Week, the head of the General Staff, General Victor Muzhenko, said that the Ukrainian Army did not really have mobile reserves: there was a battalion from 30 Infantry Brigade (which had just finished a tough assignment at Donetsk airport); a unit from 1 Battalion/79 Airborne Brigade; a unit from 95 Airborne Brigade; and the tanks of 1 Tank Brigade. Consequently, a couple of squadrons from 30 Brigade were immediately sent to the village of Luhanske: one travelled in its own vehicles, while the other arrived by cargo train. Due to cooperation in the ATO, the National Guard offered its Donbas Battalion … but just a small part of it.

While developing the “A Plan” in Kyiv, General Muzhenko started to think about a “B Plan”—how to withdraw Ukrainian troops from the encirclement. But politics got in the way. Muzhenko faced global interests, not only the loss of men, territory, and the strategic railway hub at Debaltseve. And so the decision was made in Kyiv to postpone the retreat from Debaltseve until another round of peace negotiations between the leaders of Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia, due to be conducted at Minsk on 12 February. There was an idea not to let Putin “save face” on the global arena by prematurely abandoning Debaltseve, because he definitely wanted to capture this town at all costs.

The “A” and “B” plans were interconnected. The success of the second fully depended on the success of the first. During the coming week, Ukrainian commanders should seek to secure all roads, tracks and footpaths around Lohvynove, in order quickly and safely to withdraw as many troops and vehicles as possible. It is easy, however, to design combat operations on a map—and much tougher to design them under heavy international pressure, during an unprecedented offensive along the front line, and realize them effectively using exhausted troops with no reserves or proper intelligence data.

Following the bombardment of enemies in Lohvynove, the morning of 10 February seemed to give the Ukrainian Army hope that a full encirclement of Debaltseve could be avoided. The Ministry of Defence even shared a carefully worded message to calm things down: “The direction of road between Debaltseve and Artemivsk has been de-blocked.” Usually, an inattentive mass audience does not appreciate the true context of messages used in PsyOps. But those who know such methods realized the MoD did not actually say that M-03 and Lohvynove were now free …

In fact, the enemy fighters were getting ammo resupply, more units (mostly Russian regulars and mercenaries), APCs and tanks, which they placed in the hills around the village. Under the professional guidance of their Russian instructors, “Separatists” were digging trenches, setting ambushes, and building a stronghold to paralyze any Ukrainian convoy. And so our enemies did not disappear from Lohvynove: they disseminated towards neighbouring Nyzhne Lozove and Novohryhorivka villages, in order to widen their sector of fire: “Roads were mined. Any de-blocking did not happen,” said Ukrainian MP and former commander of the Donbas Battalion, Semen Semenchenko, on his Facebook page on 10 February.

The seriousness of the situation around Lohvynove was proven the same day. Around 3pm, vehicles carrying police chiefs of the Donetsk and Lviv regions were caught in an ambush, while trying to escape from Debaltseve. One of their vehicles was blown up by a mine, killing Dmytro Ternovyi, security chief of the Donetsk railway. Two other officers—Dmytro Zagaria (head of the Lviv region police) and Ihor Volskyi (commander of the Lviv Battalion)—were wounded and engaged in combat. They were rescued a couple of hours later, but they left the body of their comrade in the snowy fields. “Separatists” released it on 21 February.

(To be continued. Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Diary 19: Oath Under Fire

During our two-month stint in Debaltseve city, Donetsk region, 40 Battalion was reinforced with new soldiers and officers from time to time. They were mostly mobilized reservists — like me — but also young professionals recently contracted to the Army. Some of these servicemen were sent to us after learning to operate anti-aircraft, anti-tank, or grenade systems etc.

Several times our officers — like Sr. Lieutenant Vladislav Lomaka — went to the depot in Kryvyi Rih to fetch reservists who had previously served in our battalion, and who were ready to rejoin us after recovering from wounds. In this way, during January 2015, battalion strength at Debaltseve had grown from 330 servicemen to about 400.

In Ukraine, new-contract soldiers are sworn-in at the training centres, but reservists — who served in the Soviet Army some 25–40 years ago — had sworn no new oath since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For decades, successive Ukrainian governments pursued a policy of defence-budget cuts and reduced military capability: consequently, no one had called for reservists to take a new military oath to the people of an independent state, which, in truth, they should have. And so we were obliged to fix this issue ourselves and conduct swearing-in procedures right on the front line at Debaltseve.

To perform the oath-taking honourably, and in accordance with military etiquette, we needed to assemble all available staff. This was possible in December and early January 2015, when enemy shelling temporarily ceased, following the “Minsk-1” peace accord. But from the middle of January mass gatherings of servicemen in a particular location became risky. That’s why newcomers took their oath elsewhere — for example, in the underground shelters or corridors of the main building of our base, which was located in the premises of a children’s summer camp, appropriately named “Salute”. The walls of this building protected us from sudden bombardments …

Ukraine soldier military oath Debaltseve

“Attention! Don’t move! Unit commanders, conduct the military-oath procedure for your servicemen!” barked the battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Victor Pocherniaev, on 3 February 2015 at 8.30pm. Here, in a narrow, dark corridor, the chief officers of the battalion were gathered with off-duty soldiers. Enemy fire missions had resumed and our camp had only just emerged from the latest bombardment — several mortar shells fell outside the 6th Guard Post, injuring no one. We must now use this rare moment of peace …

“Soldier Kobzar! For taking military oath, step forward!” said the commander’s deputy, Colonel Ihor Shcherbyna, addressing a soldier standing before him in the corridor. The Colonel managed the whole procedure instead of the unit commanders, because they were far away in snowy trenches on the front line. (For more on Colonel Shcherbyna, please, read the #18 installment of this “Debaltseve Diary”.)

“I, soldier Kobzar, have come to take the military oath!” replied the reservist, standing at the designated spot and saluting the Colonel with his right hand. For sure, there was no room for marching in such a narrow space! A folder was then produced, containing the text of the oath, to be read by flashlight:

“I, Maxim Kobzar, am assuming my military service and solemnly swear to the Ukrainian people always to be true and faithful; to defend Ukraine and protect its sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability; conscientiously and honestly to perform military duties and the orders of commanders; strictly to observe the Constitution and laws of Ukraine and to keep state secrets. I swear to carry out my duties in the interests of compatriots! I swear never to betray the Ukrainian people!”

He signed the paper and declared: “I, soldier Kobzar, took the military oath!”

The Colonel stepped up to him and shook his hand with warm congratulations.

“I serve the Ukrainian people!” the reservist soldier swore loudly in Debaltseve.

“Good for you!” the Colonel encouraged him.

Then two other soldiers from the grenade-launcher unit — Anatolyi Shvets and Olexander Kobyliov — took the oath by this standard procedure.

Ukraine soldiers military oath Debaltseve

Now, I hoped, we could celebrate. But in war one’s hopes are not always realized. At the conclusion of the oath-taking ceremony, a soldier Olexander Lazarenko ran into the corridor and cried: “The camp is under attack!” (For more on this serviceman, please read the #8 installment of this “Debaltseve Diary”. On 9 February 2015 he was captured by Russian-led terrorists. As of 15 October he has not been released and his fate is unknown.) As it happened, I had heard the sound of a grenade explosion outside, while filming the oath procedure on video. But no shooting followed as in a normal attack.

“Attention! Go fighting!” replied Colonel Shcherbyna to all of us standing in the corridor.

Well, it was an order! Everybody quickly grabbed Kalashnikovs or machine guns and hurried outside to their battle stations at the hilltop trenches above the camp. I ran to the 6th Guard Post — recently shelled — accompanying the deputy commander, Lt. Colonel Volodymyr Sarychev. We scrambled out onto the hill via an icy, slippery footpath, and then ran to our reserve trench through an open field under the moonlight. While running I tried not to think about being hit by a bullet or mortar shell …

So finally we reached the trenches and jumped into the deep snow, with which they were fully covered. Looking for a convenient place for shooting, I cracked a couple of jokes with on-duty soldiers in nearby trenches. The bright disc of the Moon shone before me in the clear frosty skies above Chornukhine village, 5 kilometres from us.

Debaltseve fields Ukraine military trenches

Very soon I realized that everything was silent around — no enemies in the fields and no shooting. The winter wind in my face didn’t bring any sound of tank or APC engine working. The on-duty soldiers in the trenches said they had heard the explosion as well. It was similar to a grenade going off, and it happened in a small wood to the left. But, as they said, it could have been one of many anti-personnel mines located around the camp: a random fox or abandoned village dog could step on one, or drag a tripwire to cause a detonation. Even a falling branch from a tree might trip a mine …

After half an hour — while a special unit checked the area and found nothing suspicious — the combat alert was revoked. This time it was false. Unfortunately, I had no chance to ask Colonel Shcherbyna and soldier Lazarenko whether this mass response to a random explosion was based on a genuine threat, or whether was it just their pre-arranged ploy to test our combat-readiness.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Diary 18: Colonel Shcherbyna

Ukraine army colonel Shcherbyna Ihor Debaltseve
Colonel Ihor Shcherbyna. My photo.

Retired Colonel of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Ihor Shcherbyna, aged 48, was my first commander at the military base in Kryvyi Rih city, when I was called to the army as a reservist on 25 August 2014. Being a military pensioner, he received his conscription notice last summer, and went to defend Ukraine from the illegal armed Separatist forces, sponsored by Russia, which have been occupying the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Over several months, Colonel Shcherbyna led the 3rd Infantry Battalion of the 17th Tank Brigade, which had been formed of third-wave reservists.

In fact, initially, Colonel Shcherbyna became my commander by mistake. The soldier who guided me to the detachment unintentionally brought me to “3 Battalion” instead of “2 Battalion” as instructed. This mistake was revealed a week later, when the commander of 2 Battalion called to ask where the hell I was! By that time I had already got used to Colonel Shcherbyna and the servicemen of my unit – and yet I was requesting a transfer to 2 Battalion because that’s what was written on my military ID card.

Recalling those days, I remember that the chief of the “Dzerzhynsky-Dovgyntsevsky” military registry office in Kryvyi Rih was glad to grab and send me, as a lieutenant reservist, to his friend’s battalion. He saw me for just a couple of minutes but happily called his friend in the army, assuring him that “Viktor is a good and reliable guy. He will be the best commander of your intelligence unit…” I was in shock, listening to that conversation! I am a journalist by profession, and my military experience was limited to the command of an ordinary infantry unit: I had no idea about spying, “Recon”, “Intel” or “Special Ops” – the kind of stuff normally associated with an “intelligence unit”.

But the whole situation relating to bad or irrelevant placing of personnel within the army was unpleasant for me. In those days no one in the military registry offices – or indeed within the army – cared about the skills, professions or expertise of reservists. And so it was that school teachers with English language skills were sent to serve in supply units, and journalists to fire from mortars and artillery, etc. This was clear evidence of the organizational confusion apparent in the post-Soviet Ukrainian Army since the first waves of the draft in 2014.

Ukraine army Colonel Shcherbyna Debaltseve
Col. Shcherbyna has a talk with volunteers. My photo.

Therefore, having been upset by staff chaos, I went to the fellow officers of Colonel Shcherbyna’s battalion and asked them for advice. I was immediately encouraged by Major Olexander Vakulenko (for more on him, please see Part 5 of my Debaltseve Diary). He designed my fate with a simple question: “But with whom do you want to serve personally?” And so, in this way, I took the decision to stay with Colonel Ihor Shcherbyna, despite the position still being that of an “intelligence unit commander”.

As it turned out, I made a lucky choice! This well-educated and hugely experienced colonel taught me how to be a real commander, how to train and manage my unit effectively, and how to achieve credible results in battle operations. Under his guidance I rapidly restored many military skills, forgotten for twenty years since I finished the three-year military course at Kyiv Shevchenko University. The Colonel often invited me for personal talks – not to punish for faults (as most commanders do) but to teach how to solve issues and encourage soldiers.

Colonel Shcherbyna had a phenomenal memory for names. It seemed to me that he knew all 600 reservist servicemen in the battalion. One day, during the first weeks of my service, I could not quickly remember the full name of one of my sergeants. The Colonel was unimpressed and said: “Viktor, you have to know all your guys by name and title!” Afterwards I made sure to remember all nineteen of them.

Ukraine armyColonel Shcherbyna Debaltseve
Col. Shcherbyna at the road post ‘Cross’ in Debaltseve. My photo.

Recalling those days, a senior soldier named Edward Dehtiariov told me he had known Colonel Shcherbyna since 2013, when they worked together in the Yakymivka district of the Zaporizhzha region. As a retired army officer, Ihor Shcherbyna was appointed Head of the Civil Defence Department at the district administration. Edward spent lots of time with Colonel Shcherbyna, inspecting local institutions and bomb shelters around the territory of the rural district: “Like you, Viktor, I agreed to be voluntarily transferred to his battalion in Kryvyi Rih,” said Edward. “He sent me to the 8th Unit, which was his beloved one, and formed by the best officers and servicemen. He kept us trained at the base till the last moment, despite the fact that other units were gradually sent to the frontline from September to October 2014.”

Colonel Shcherbyna kept the 8th Unit at the base because it had not yet received any armoured vehicles (he was strongly against sending troops to the battle zone without armour). As a professional officer, he perfectly knew battle-zone risks, the present conditions of the Ukrainian Army, and the real ‘cost’ of High Command assurances. That is why, having many friends within the army, he personally visited many APC depots around the country, and organized delivery of working armoured vehicles to his battalion. He only released units to the frontline after they had received and tested their APCs.

Later, in November 2014, me and the rest of 3 Battalion were transferred to strengthen 40 Battalion, which had suffered huge loses in August, following the Battle of Ilovaisk in Donetsk region. Colonel Shcherbyna became our deputy commander there. Despite switching between two battalions, the Colonel enjoyed huge respect among the servicemen of both. Even those who had issues with their discipline respected him for his expertise.

Ukraine Colonel Shcherbyna Debaltseve
Col. Shcherbyna has a talk to a sergeant at road post ‘Cross’ in Debaltseve. My photo.

In December we were sent to the ATO zone in eastern Ukraine to defend the city of Debaltseve. The Colonel organized and managed the defence of the battalion’s main camp. He also visited the frontline to help and encourage our soldiers in the trenches. His visits always restored confidence to the troops, who believed that everything would work out fine.

In January 2015 Colonel Shcherbyna foresaw that the Russian-backed Separatists would begin using ‘small diversion-groups tactics’ because all their attacks – even with massive bombardments – had been repelled. He was right. However, thanks to his advice, our troops were ready to combat these diversion groups. And when, in February, they started trying to infiltrate the city of Debaltseve, Colonel Shcherbyna led multiple counter-operations against enemy groups in the city suburbs.

Colonel Shcherbyna hoped very much that the Minsk-2 agreement could restore the long-awaited ceasefire to Debaltseve. He often asked me about recent news from Kyiv and Minsk, because I had a portable short-wave radio, and listened to Ukrainian and foreign radio stations. Recalling those February days, I remember how we were standing in the main camp, talking about political news, when suddenly the sound of a mortar shell was heard approaching. Having seconds to hide, we yelled an “Air!” warning to all, and jumped down to the shelters. The shell exploded almost exactly where we had been talking. But, thanks to the Colonel’s experience, during the whole Debaltseve campaign we had no fatalities at our main camp – just one soldier was badly wounded and yet he survived.

Ukraine army Colonel Shcherbyna Debaltseve Battle
Col. Shcherbyna in the main camp of 40 Battalion at Debaltseve. My photo.

The sorrowful news that DNA analysis had confirmed Colonel Shcherbyna’s death reached our 40 Battalion in the middle of June 2015 – after four long months of hoping he had survived the lethal Debaltseve nightmare.

The last time a fellow ‘spetsnaz’ squad saw Colonel Shcherbyna was on 16 February. They guarded a convoy of trucks carrying the corpses of Ukrainian “KIAs” (killed-in-action servicemen) and tried to break through an enemy encirclement near Novohrygorivla village. They saw that the Colonel’s car had driven over a mine in the snowy fields and exploded, exposing the convoy to an enemy ambush. The Colonel was badly injured but somehow managed to quit the car. Due to heavy fighting at that moment, the Ukrainian ‘spetsnaz’ guys could not reach and evacuate him, and were forced to retreat. When they returned next day, there was no trace of the Colonel.

There is a saying in the army: it is more important who your commander is, than in what detachment you serve. In my draft, Colonel Ihor Shcherbyna was my first commander, and I will always remember him thankfully, and from the bottom of my heart.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Diary 17: Sergeant Asmolov

Andrew Asmolov Ukraine army sergeant Debaltseve
Sergeant of 40 Battalion Andrew Asmolov. Archive photo.

Sergeant Andrew Asmolov, commander of 40 Battalion’s supply unit, served in the Ukrainian Army as a reservist for just nine months. He happened to survive the deadly Battle of Ilovaisk (in the Donetsk region) last August, where he saved many comrades’ lives. But the next military operation – at the city of Debaltseve (in the same Donetsk region) during the winter of 2014–15 – would be his last.

As Andrew’s comrade and buddy, Sergeant Ruslan Gursky, told me: Asmolov was killed in battle on 12 February – Ruslan’s birthday …

“On the previous day, me and Andrew arrived at the ‘Moisha’ stronghold to help defend it from increasing assaults,” said Ruslan. “The stronghold was located in the eastern suburb of Debaltseve. Andrew should not have gone there because, as the commander of a supply unit, he was not an experienced fighter. But he volunteered … the only one of his squad.”

The guys’ task was to hold a remote outpost, known as “Olimp”, in the face of intensified attacks by the Russian-backed Separatists. By this time, many Ukrainian reservists at “Moisha” had realized that defending against increasing numbers of enemy troops would be fatal for all of them, especially without resupply and reinforcement.

Most of the Separatists attacking our stronghold were Kossaks from the Don region of Russia. Their diversion groups (consisting of five or six fighters) constantly tried to infiltrate the Ukrainian city of Debaltseve: sometimes they were successful and managed to hit Ukrainian positions from the rear.

“The ‘Olimp’ position was on the top of the hill – in fact, on the top of a local colliery slagheap,” recalled Ruslan. “On my birthday, Kossaks attacked us from behind. While firing at the enemies alongside Andrew my throat became dry and – needing a drink – I bent down to grab a bottle of water. At that moment an enemy mortar shell hit the trench. One piece smashed into my leg but Andrew got major wounds and died in my arms within a couple of minutes.”

Sergeant Ruslan Gursky repelled the enemy attack, so Andrew’s corpse was delivered to the main battalion camp four hours later.

Andrew Asmolov in Debaltseve. My photo.

Ruslan knew Andrew for nine months, since 40 Battalion was first formed. He said that Andrew was a smiling, kind, and interesting person. When he was young, Andrew served as a reservist in the Border Guards; so he liked to wear a green-striped T-shirt – the standard-issue underwear of the old Soviet Army Border Guards. Occasionally, Ruslan’s wife sent a couple of these T-shirts to her husband in Debaltseve, so Ruslan gave one to Andrew: “He was so happy to get this underwear!” said Ruslan. “He was mourned in it in his native city of Nikopol, in the Dnipropetrovsk region.”

Sergeant Andrew Asmolov left a widow and two children – a son and a daughter. Before the Russian-backed aggression he served as an investigator in the local police force of the Dnipropetrovsk region. His police colleagues and army comrades will always remember him as a reliable person, devoted to his duties.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Diary 16: One Hundred Ukrainian POWs

As I mentioned in a previous installment of my “Debaltseve Diary” (see Part 14), on the morning of 17 February the two key strongholds of 40 Battalion on the eastern outskirts of Debaltseve – “Moisha” and “Kopie” – surrendered to the Russian-led Separatist forces. Ninety-three of my comrades became POWs at that time, as well as a dozen other Ukrainian soldiers from 101 Brigade and 8 “Spetsnaz” Regiment.

Ukraine 0army tank Debaltseve
Demolished Ukrainian tank in the ATO zone in eastern Ukraine. Photo from social media.

Intensive street battles against Russian tanks, conducted under heavy Russian artillery bombardment, had been occurring in the suburbs of Debaltseve for five days prior to the surrender of our battalion’s two strongholds. The MSR (major supply route) of Debaltseve–Artemivsk had already been cut, as had other urban routes, blocked by enemy diversion groups, which had reached the railway station downtown. Meanwhile our battalion communication transmitter inside the city had been effectively destroyed; and so almost 100 Ukrainian troops found themselves in a deadly situation, without ammo resupply or communications. But they “went firm” and held their positions till the last round … and only then surrendered.

The process of surrendering was not easy for these guys. Some were staring at captivity for the second time, after being “bagged” during the Battle of Ilovaisk, back in August 2014. As I was told, one of 40 Battalion’s brave officers, Captain Dmytro Parkhomenko, defended his post at Debaltseve until the last moment – that is until the enemy threatened to shoot his comrades in the legs. Then he stopped fighting. And what was Captain Parkhomenko fate? He was released only on 10 July 2015, spending more than 4 months in captivity in the occupied city of Luhansk.

Ukrainian army POWs Debaltseve Luhansk
Ukrainian army POWs, captured in Debaltseve. Screenshot from Russian TV.

Not only were 100 troops from 40 Battalion captured on the last day of the Battle of Debaltseve, a dozen servicemen from 101 Brigade and 8 “Spetsnaz” Regiment were also detained, after their convoy was hit by an enemy ambush. Their APC was destroyed but they, too, fought bravely till the last round.

The Russian-backed Separatists, however, declared that they had captured 300 to 400 Ukrainian servicemen in the Battle of Debaltseve. These numbers were indeed exaggerated, in order to serve Russian-propaganda purposes. Turns out the Kremlin bosses had promised in media statements that “on 23 February (the Soviet Army Day) on the streets of Donetsk and Luhansk there will be a parade of Ukrainian POWs, captured at Debaltseve”. Russian propagandists wanted to show a second major Ukrainian defeat (following Ilovaisk) to their domestic audiences in Russia and the occupied Ukrainian territories. Russian media aggressively labelled the Ukrainians “Nazis” and “fascists”, so that the purported mass parade of POWs would awaken memories of how the Soviets happily paraded German prisoners on Red Square, Moscow, in 1945.

Ukrainian army POWs Debaltseve Luhansk
Ukrainian army POWs from Debaltseve board a truck to be exchanged for separatist fighters. Screenshot from Russian TV.

However, the official number of Debaltseve POWs, released by Ukraine’s General Staff, correlates with my monitoring and calculations: from 110 to 120 Ukrainian servicemen, including ninety-three from 40 Battalion.

Thus, the numbers of POWs were not impressive for the next “Hate Show” on Russian TV. Therefore, under heavy political pressure from Kyiv, Separatist leaders agreed to exchange 100 Ukrainians for about fifty of their previously captured fighters.

Talking to Russian TV under duress, one of the captured 40 Battalion reservist officers (I will not mention his name) said what his captors demanded, promoting the Kremlin version of the Battle of Debaltseve for the “home” audience: “They [the Ukrainian command] betrayed us. We had no supplies. During the last five days they did not evacuate our wounded and dead. We did not receive any order to change position or withdraw. We will have a hard talk to them, after our release!”

As I know, this reservist never had “hard talks” with the High Command after his release, and he did not initiate any scandal or rebellion (except some harsh comments on social media). He just drank away the next few months till the end of his draft in May.

Separatist fighters POWs Luhansk
Eastern Ukraine separatist fighters waiting for their exchange to Ukrainian army POWs. Screenshot from Russian TV.

Our POWs were held in the occupied city of Luhansk for four days. The release of ninety-two of them (minus Captain Parkhomenko) occurred on the morning of 21 February, near Zholobok settlement on the disputed Bakhmutka road in the Luhansk region. They were met by General Vasyl Hrytsak, of the Security Service of Ukraine (later, in June 2015, he would be appointed as acting Head of SSU), accompanied by the pro-Kremlin politician Victor Medvedchuk, who is a crony of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, and one of the representatives of Ukraine in the Minsk Negotiating Contact Group.

General Hrytsak Victor Medvedchuk Ukraine POWs army
Ukrainian Security Service General Vasyl Hrytsak (center) & pro-Kremlin politician Victor Medvedchuk (right) during release of Ukrainian army POWs after the battle of Debaltseve. Screenshot from Russian TV.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Diary 15: A Former Captive Returns To Fight

Senior Lieutenant Roman wasn’t happy when I asked him to pose for a photograph with the medal he received from the Ukrainian President. He had been officially honoured for saving the lives of his men, after his unit was encircled and captured by Russian regular forces at Ilovaisk city, in the eastern Donetsk region, in August 2014. Roman wasn’t happy about being photographed because he was told by his Russian captors never to return to fight. He was afraid they might recognize him on the photograph and deliberately kill him.

Ukraine medal order
The Ukrainian order “For Bravery”

But Roman only hesitated for a minute. And then he let me take photos of his Presidential medal. Moreover, he told me the story of his capture …

The owner of a small coffee shop in an industrial city in central Ukraine, Roman, as a senior lieutenant reservist, was drafted in May 2014. At the time of our talk in January 2015, he had been serving in the Ukrainian Army for over eight months. Roman and dozens of ex-captive Ukrainian servicemen are participating in the anti-terrorist operation again now. I’m with them too. I’m in the war-torn area for the first time; they are here for the second. They have seen death and carried the corpses of comrades on their backs. I am trying to understand why they look different to other servicemen, and how their personalities have been changed.

Being unexpectedly encircled by Russian troops at Ilovaisk last summer (2014), Roman, as commander of an infantry unit of twenty servicemen, received an order to retreat via the only road. Roman’s superiors told him that the Russians had assured the Ukrainians of a safe passage via that road. But, in fact, as soon as the Ukrainian convoy lined up to head west, it was plastered with artillery shells—one of which struck the ground beneath Roman’s open truck. A fellow soldier, sitting on bench beside Roman, was badly wounded and, in a couple of minutes, died in his arms. Roman was injured too, but somehow found the strength to cope and continue commanding. Wounded soldiers and NCOs scrambled out of the demolished trucks, picked up the bodies of dead comrades, and hid in a nearby wood to await rescue.

But there was no rescue: all Ukrainian forces were now heading west. For hours Roman and his men stared at the abandoned road, littered with demolished Ukrainian trucks.

Ukraine army Ilovaisk roadpost
The Ukrainian army road block post near city of Ilovaisk in Donetsk region in August 2014. Archive photo of 40 Battalion.

At midday a Russian squad appeared and ordered Roman’s unit to surrender. Roman didn’t clarify why they didn’t resist to the last round. But maybe he just wanted to live, and to the save the lives of his men in what was, after all, a hopeless situation—many wounded, many without weapons, no support …

Anyway, the truth is that the Russians captured all Roman’s guys and sent them for interrogation. The Russians also took the corpses of dead Ukrainian fighters, promising to pass them to the Ukrainian authorities later.

Ukraine army troops Ilovaisk
Ukrainian troops at city of Ilovaisk in Donetsk region in August 2014. Archive photo of 40 Battalion.

Roman said the Russians interrogated everyone in his squad, asking them about personal and military data. He told me that the Russians asked many questions but didn’t harm the captives. Roman also recalled the words of one of the mid-level Russian commanders: “You’re lucky that WE found you, not the Donetsk separatists! They would simply kill you, and that would be that!”

Roman was in Russian captivity for several hours. After the interrogation was over, the Russians took him and the rest of his squad to the nearest Ukrainian checkpoint and released them.

Ukraine army troops Ilovaisk
The Ukrainian troops deadly withdrawal from city of Ilovaisk. Archive photo of 40 Battalion.

Senior Lieutenant Roman could mourn his comrade Andriy only after three and a half months had passed. According to available information, the driver of a refrigerator truck—detailed to transport Andriy’s corpse, along with the bodies of about fifty dead Ukrainians, from the Separatist-controlled region to the Ukrainian lines—died from a heart attack after he saw their remains. Later, another driver took Andriy’s corpse to the Zaporizhzha morgue, where soldiers were mourned at the local cemetery as “unknown warriors”. Andriy’s remains were identified by DNA-analysis in December, so his young wife and old mother could mourn him, back in the home city.

Roman surely saw the painful video from Donetsk in January 2015, showing Russian-sponsored terrorists parading dozens of Ukrainian captives and blaming them for the death of civilians. He also saw a video in which the angry pro-Russian mob struck a captured Ukrainian colonel Oleh Kuzminykh in the face. And so the ex-captive understands the meaning of the words and threats told by his captors at the end of August. Both enemies—Russian regulars and pro-Russian terrorists sponsored by Moscow—play a game of “good cop, bad cop” in their undeclared war against Ukraine. Russia denies any involvement of its troops, thus rejecting responsibility for invasion, military crimes, acts of terror, deaths of civilians, etc.

Ukraine army APC Debaltseve
The Ukrainian army APC near city of Debaltseve. My photo.

Was Roman lucky that Russian regulars found him in the forest? The answer isn’t simple after a year of the Ukraine–Russia war. Roman has no doubt that the Russians also kill, and the humiliation of captives is just another part of the invasion strategy orchestrated by the Kremlin. But now he has a greater understanding of the enemy. Therefore he isn’t afraid of sharing his story and defending his homeland.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Diary 14: Sr. Lt. Brekharia And His Stronghold

Sr. Lieutenant Yuriy Brekharia saved the lives of his fifty soldiers at 40 Battalion’s “Zenith” stronghold, located north of Debaltseve near Novohrygorivka village. For six hours, during the night of 17/18 February, he led his men to safety over treacherous snowy terrain and deep river ravines. Selecting a good route – utilising cover and little-known paths – they travelled on foot, carefully avoiding death or capture.

Yuri Brekharia 40 Battalion Ukraine Debaltseve
Sr. Lieutenant Yuriy Brekharia.

As well as rescuing his full complement of fifty servicemen, Brekharia can also be credited with successfully completing his mission – for his “Zenith” stronghold repelled all enemy attacks during the two-month defence of the Debaltseve city area.

Sr. Lieutenant Yuriy Brekharia Ukraine Ilovaisk
Yuriy Brekharia – commander at the #4003 road block post.

The mission at Debaltseve was the second successful military operation during Yuriy’s 2014–2015 reservist draft. Earlier – back in August – he had survived a similar encirclement near Ilovaisk city, in the Donetsk region, when camouflaged Russian forces counter-attacked and shelled the advancing Ukrainian troops. According to official figures, at Ilovaisk, the Ukrainian Army lost over 500 men killed in a single day of that Russian attack. In the summer of 2014, Yuriy Brekharia – under the call sign “Relsy” (“Rails”) – commanded a defensive line at the #4003 road block post. On 20 August he was wounded in the leg by shell fragments. But he refused to be evacuated to the hospital and remained at his post, encouraging his comrades.

According to Brekharia, the situation around his “Zenith” stronghold started to deteriorate from 20 January. From that date, the enemy began fully coordinated & targeted shelling with mortars and MLRSs. The enemy also launched direct attacks with armoured vehicles and tanks. Prior to 20 January, incoming enemy artillery fire had been sporadic and inaccurate. And so, on that January day, Brekharia realized his men were facing Russian regular forces, quickly deploying undercover to accumulate military advantages over Ukrainian troops in the area.

But Brekharia’s comrades successfully destroyed enemy tanks with all the weaponry available to an infantry detachment. Some Ukrainian tanks also arrived to help in repelling the Russians. Yuriy specifically recalls the moment when they destroyed their first Russian tank. That small victory made “Zenith” a deadly place for the enemy, reversing the roles of “victim” and “hunter” on the front line. Yuriy’s comrades literally tore apart the second Russian tank with a heavy calibre gun, a mortar, anti-tank guided missiles and grenade launchers. After that, Russian tanks were no longer a psychological issue for Ukrainian reservists.

Archive photo Zenith 40 Battalion Ukraine Debaltseve
Archive photo of Ukrainian tanks at “Zenith” stronghold at Debaltseve.

Sr. Lieutenant Brekharia recalled that the first Russian offensives at Debaltseve were similar to those made by the Soviet General Georgi Zhukov or the German Nazi General Heinz Guderian in the twentieth century: that is to say, they concentrated as many troops as possible and threw them all into the assault. Defeated each time at the “Zenith” stronghold, Russian regulars and Russian-led separatists switched their attacks to other areas.

Such daily assaults on Ukrainian positions around Debaltseve lasted a month, from 20 January to 17 February, supported by artillery and rockets. Thus, at the “Zenith” stronghold, the Ukrainians were gradually losing their armoured vehicles and weaponry – some of the APCs and tanks were destroyed, some were old and unreliable, others needed urgent repairs that would not come in time.

Ukraine tank Debaltseve Zenith
Demolished Ukrainian tank at Debaltseve city. Archive photo of “Zenith” stronghold.

Yuriy Brekharia said that 40 Battalion’s defence at Debaltseve was truly heroic: the battalion had been sent to the front in December with only 330 personnel instead of the 600 originally planned. And so, without additional personnel, without speedy vehicle repairs and replacement, the wisest thing was to hold for as long as possible before beginning a staged withdrawal. He thinks the Ukrainian staff officers were critically late in pulling our troops out of Debaltseve, and that it should have happened sooner, in a thoroughly planned manner. But he denied that anyone at his “Zenith” stronghold had considered surrender, despite the daily cruel battles, despite the lack of communications in the last days, and despite the fact that two neighbouring strongholds of 40 Battalion – “Moisha” and “Kopie” – surrendered on the morning of 17 February.

The “Zenith” stronghold planned to withdraw alone on 17–18 February in an organized manner without losses. They no longer had communications with commanders at 40 Battalion HQ or C Sector, so Sr. Lieutenant Yuriy Brekharia had to organise the withdrawal himself.

On the morning of 17 February, “Zenith” repelled its final enemy attack – using up most of its ammo reserves and losing its last working APC to an enemy mortar shell. And so, after waiting for two Russian drones finally to quit the sky above the stronghold, Brekharia’s boys began their journey home.

Ukraine troops Debaltseve
Ukraine troops withdraw from Debaltseve by the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”. Photo by Artem Ryzhikov.

At 11pm on 17 February, fifty Ukrainian reservists from the “Zenith” stronghold, organised into three groups, marched to safety along what Brekharia dubbed the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” (an analogy to the iconic pathway used by Vietnam guerrillas along the Mekong river). They soon reached the northern Ukrainian stronghold “Valeriy”, and then rushed by another pathway to the Myronivske and Luhanske settlements further to the north.

Sr. Lieutenant Yuriy Brekharia told me he is sure his mission was successful because, by keeping their position till the last moment, they permitted thousands of Ukrainian troops to gather at Novohryhorivka village (right behind the “Zenith” stronghold), in order to form the heavily armed convoy that successfully broke the encirclement and completed the withdrawal from Debaltseve.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Diary 13: The Actual Withdrawal

128 Brigade Ukraine Sheptala
Colonel Serhiy Sheptala, commander of the 128 Brigade.

As previously mentioned, it was a rare stroke of luck that I was standing behind the commander of 128 Brigade as he gave the final order to withdraw from Debaltseve to Artemivsk. This was Colonel Serhiy Sheptala, and he was later honored with the highest title of “Hero of Ukraine” for planning and organizing our withdrawal.

Colonel Sheptala issued his order in front of many officers, gathered under enemy mortar fire at the entrance of the HQ shelter, and it seemed to me – a reservist and civil person – that the colonel’s manner was pretty rude! But then I realized he’d struck exactly the right tone: his “army style” of speaking was designed to shake us up and prepare us for battle and further orders. The colonel told everyone to board trucks and APCs – even tanks (if there was no room inside the vehicles) – and be ready to start our journey at 3am. And so we jumped to it.

I found the last empty space inside our battalion’s KAMAZ truck (next to the door). Moments later, a large and heavily armed convoy of some 100 vehicles, with over 1,000 personnel, snaked out of the base and headed … back to Debaltseve! In fact we were making for Novohrygorivka village – on the northern outskirts of Debaltseve – in order to form a powerful “fist” with other Ukrainian troops and break through enemy-controlled fields to Artemivsk.

Those last few hours of darkness (18 February) at 128 Brigade’s overcrowded base were full of chaotic events. Some officers – in their attempt to save more military stuff – overloaded several trucks: later, when their engines “gave up the ghost”, we lost them, along with items of personal stuff, somewhere in the snowy fields.

Indeed, we did not appreciate just how scary and dangerous this journey would be – menaced by enemy ambushes, tanks, snipers and shelling – or that it would take four hours to cover a mere 15 kilometers. In fact any vehicle that broke down would almost certainly mean the capture or death of those inside.

Fortunately, the truck I was in did not break down, and it saved our lives. The powerful four-wheel drive KAMAZ, with big wheels, was the best option for snowy fields, and I intuitively felt I must survive. But even this truck got stuck twice in deep snow, requiring us to switch off the engine. Each time – thanks to 128 Brigade’s tanks and APCs – we were pulled out and continued pushing ahead. And when our truck came under enemy fire (which happened several times), the tanks and APCs protected us and effectively silenced the Russian-backed Separatists. Other vehicles in the convoy – like buses or sedans, which were not suitable for rough terrain – soon got into trouble, and the soldiers had to find alternative transport … if they were lucky enough.

Ukraine army withdrawal Debaltseve
An Android phone map of my withdrawal route, recorded by a fellow officer of 40 Battalion Andriy Brykner.

On two occasions – at the end of our trip, near the settlement of Mironivsky – our truck came under shelling by Russian “Grads” (MLRSs BM-21). As soon as we heard the rockets exploding behind us, our driver would immediately stop the truck, so the next salvo would fly harmlessly over our heads.

Not everyone in our convoy was lucky. According to official figures, nineteen Ukrainian servicemen in the convoy were killed and 135 were wounded. A dozen of our battalion’s servicemen were wounded, and ninety-four were captured by Russian “kazacks” (but released four days later).

We at 40 Battalion lost one sergeant, Hennadiy Medvedev, killed during the withdrawal. Our communication sergeant, Denis Kozachenko, is still listed as missing – until DNA tests can confirm his death. As we later discovered, Denis may have jumped out of a trapped truck and dashed into a field to hide – only to be hit by a random mortar shell. Being wounded, he probably got into greater trouble: it was almost impossible to reach safety alone, on foot, and in freezing conditions of minus 15 Celcius. Overall, 40 Battalion losses during the two-month Debaltseve campaign totalled twenty confirmed dead, and over forty wounded.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)