From the very beginning our mobile-phone connections at Debaltseve city (in the ATO zone of the eastern Donetsk region) were unstable. This was due to the fact that our camp was located quite far from the city, situated between hills in a small river valley. Sometimes we could call from cell phones via Ukrainian mobile operators KyivStar and Life, and occasionally via MTS-Ukraine. However, in January 2015 I had a good mobile Internet connection from my room on the second floor of the camp building, which allowed me to update our battalion website, social media accounts, and stay connected to relatives and friends.
But our mobile communications at Debaltseve gradually went down from 20 January, especially after the first shelling of our base: the Internet disappeared and we could make only brief calls or send SMS texts via KyivStar — when its weak radio signal occasionally reached our location. To make longer calls, servicemen had to explore the highest hills around the base, risking their lives to random shelling or sniper bullets.
I ventured outside the base to make calls just twice during our long stay. The second of these calls I made on 28 January, talking with my wife, son and sister just hours before the first massive shelling occurred. But basically, for many weeks, the best I could do was to send text messages from the second-floor balcony of the camp building. And even that was risky — on the evening of 6 February a Russian MLRS ‘Grad’ rocket exploded in that exact spot.
Mobile-phone connections disappeared because the city of Debalsteve was constantly shelled by pro-Russian terrorists from late January to early February. Thus the electrical infrastructure and communication antennas were gradually destroyed, leaving us without any hope for the restoration of communications. By the way, at the battalion we had a military satellite transmitter with IP-telephone connection. Some officers frequently used this for private purposes, in order to contact relatives via friends in the Armed Forces. I had no friends among the “Top Brass” to call via the satellite; therefore I never used military networks to call my mom.
Up to the very minute of our withdrawal from Debaltseve I hoped that the operative situation around us would improve, and that mobile operators would fix their communication towers. But things didn’t turn out the way I hoped. Keeping us cut off from the rest of the world in Debaltseve, the Russian-led terrorists increased the intensity of their attacks and disseminated disinformation about Ukrainian losses in our battalion. Later I discovered that our relatives and friends had actively contacted the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces, seeking accurate information about us.
During daily attacks in January–February, the Russian-sponsored terrorists used portable cell transmitters to deliver fake and provocative text messages to our mobiles, in order to instigate anger or panic among our troops and destabilize order in our units. For example, on 12 February – on the very day the Minsk-2 peace agreement was signed – many of our servicemen received the same SMS, composed in a Russian criminal-jargon style, declaring that President Poroshenko “betrayed us, thus he should be killed”. Another fake message, received at the beginning of February, was addressed to ordinary soldiers, saying that their commander (with no name given) had fled to the city of Kramatorsk, thus “all of us were going to flee tonight as well”.
Indeed, the terrorists had been taking control of our cell phones for up to 5–10 minutes, in order to deliver their propaganda messages. Sure, the SMS texts were anonymous and false. And not one of us fled, not one of us left our positions. Many times our unit commanders banned the use of cell phones in the battle zone, but our servicemen’s wish to reach relatives was so strong that they often ignored the ban and tried to catch any signal as best they could.
(Edited by Christopher Summerville)