On the morning of 16 February 2015, Russian-backed terrorists destroyed our communication transmitter at Debaltseve, leaving 40 Battalion’s HQ cut off from several remote but important strongholds. We could not fix our radio connection because we had no spare transmitter. And, in any case, it was dangerous to send out the repair team, as intensive battles had already broken out in the city suburbs behind our positions. And so the last two days before our withdrawal became a waking nightmare for us in terms of military communications and round-the-clock management of a fighting detachment.

Debaltseve shelling
Debaltseve on fire. Photo by Serhyi Bobryk, 40 Battalion.

The only way we could maintain communications with our strongholds was by contacting relatives in Dnipropetrovsk or Kryvyj Rih via satellite, asking them to be our intermediaries and, using their own cell phones, call officers on the frontline and report back. Can you imagine such a thing on a modern battlefield? Well, it happened! Truth is we had to stop the enemy by any means and fulfill our mission of defending Debaltseve – even using open-line communications to target artillery …

Next day, on the morning of 17 February, we realized that two of 40 Battalion’s major strongholds – including “Moisha”, which contained ninety-two troops – were encircled and then surrendered, leaving a big gap in our eastern flank, through which enemy forces could easily pour into Debaltseve. This was a deadly threat for us, and for neighbouring detachments, as our line of retreat could quickly be severed. And so it led to the long-awaited forced withdrawal – one of the major reasons our General Staff would later be angry with 40 Battalion. But what choice had those ninety-two soldiers who surrendered – die without ammo and any hope of support, or try to save their lives via humiliating captivity?

Ukraine 40 battalion Debaltseve
The 40 Battalion servicemen at ‘Moisha’ stronghold. Photo by Piotr Andrusiechko.

From the afternoon of 17 February things on the battlefield changed so rapidly that I could not plan anything. I was simply following orders, hoping to survive. Our commander, Victor Pocherniaev, was instructed to withdraw, so he ordered us to prepare for the hazardous trip home. He also pulled back to our base fifty or so servicemen from the “Laguna” stronghold, leaving our eastern flank completely unprotected. At that moment I did not know (and I still do not know for sure) which senior officer planned our withdrawal or initiated it. The commanders of many Ukrainian detachments around Debaltseve would later claim it as their own long-awaited initiative, and their own tactical plan, approved at the last moment by the General Staff.

We calculated about 130 servicemen at our base, which was surrounded by carefully sown minefields, and connected to the MSR and the city by a single forest track running between hills. Thus, on 17 February, time became a matter of life and death. If the enemy advanced and cut this road, we would have to fight to the last round or surrender. Furthermore, we did not know which ultimate direction to take: should we head for C Sector (on the western outskirts of Debaltseve) or push 7km north-west to 128 Brigade’s main base? We only knew that we had to quit by midnight and reach the village of Novohrygorivka, in order to join the major forces preparing for withdrawal.

The problem for 40 Battalion was that we had been left with a limited number of working vehicles – not enough to carry over 100 personnel. All our APCs and most of our trucks had been gradually destroyed during daily shelling. And so, at the critical moment, we possessed only three beat-up trucks, a van and a sedan. The remaining non-working vehicles we had to burn and destroy. We also destroyed all our ammunition – over 200kg of explosives, thousands of shells, and hundreds of grenades.

Debaltseve Ukraine army baseMeanwhile, it was decided that our drivers would make two journeys to evacuate all personnel in the available vehicles. The first party – consisting of around seventy servicemen loaded into two trucks and a van – left the base about 3.30pm. They arrived safely at the main base of 128 Brigade, but no vehicles ever returned …

We called up 128 Brigade HQ to contact our comrades but they never replied. And so it looked like a betrayal. We were left with only one truck. The only reason why our comrades abandoned us was the massive shelling, which was just starting there, so the drivers were afraid to make the return trip. Moreover, as we later found out, several 40 Battalion guys quit their posts without notice and legged it – putting the rest of us at even greater risk should the enemy attack. In this way I realized for the first time in my life that war consists not only of heroism, but also shameful cases of fear, panic and betrayal.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)