On the evening of 17 February around sixty servicemen of our 40 Battalion remained at the main camp at Debaltseve – with a single serviceable truck available for transport. Our commander, Colonel Viktor Pocherniaev, dryly observed that we had no choice but to break out of the encirclement on foot. We received the same advice from C Sector, and also from 128 Brigade via satellite-radio link, which was still working despite a damaged antenna dish. Being busy with preparations for withdrawal, our colleagues from other detachments could not send any vehicles to evacuate us …
Quitting the base would be risky, but waiting till morning would be fatal, as enemy troops were sure to push through our abandoned eastern flank. Indeed I was surprised the enemy had not already launched such an attack on our main base – what was holding them back? A number of factors may be significant here:
- First, our base on the outskirts of Debaltseve was not a top priority for them.
- Second, Ukrainian artillery had seriously degraded the offensive capabilities of Russian-backed Separatists around Debaltseve prior to our withdrawal (I learned this from an officer close to the General Staff a few weeks later), so they could hardly launch an organized attack against sixty or so soldiers defending a fortified base.
- Third, Ukrainian forces at Chornukhino village and at the “Balu” checkpoint protected our southern flank till midnight, providing a narrow “window of opportunity” through which we might safely slip.
- Fourth, the scale and speed of our withdrawal caught the enemy unprepared for targeted shelling and rapid pursuit.
Close to midnight, the frosty February sky above our base clouded over and obscured the moon – a heavenly gift that would help us escape unseen. Colonel Pocherniaev ordered me and some thirty other guys to take our only truck and head for 128 Brigade, north-west of Debaltseve – breaking out of the city under shelling. The driver, Pavlo Pavlovych, and a guide soldier from our Intel squad nicknamed “Lee”, were ordered to return for the remaining personnel after delivering our group. And so I found a place in the truck and at half-past midnight we were speeding along the snow-covered road.
As luck would have it, the enemy’s bombardments were not intense around midnight, and did not target the exact roads we were traversing. And so we quickly made it to the “Cross” checkpoint at the western entrance of Debaltseve (this checkpoint would be demolished within the hour), crossed the railway bridge (which would be ruined by morning), and then rushed along the Debaltseve–Artemivsk MSR, scanning the darkness for the left turn to 128 Brigade, a couple of kilometers from Lohvynove village (captured by the enemy ten days prior).
Our GAZ truck, manufactured in Moscow, had no windows, so the biting-cold wind blew in our faces. But we drove calmly – Kalashnikovs, machine-guns and grenade launchers at the ready. I had been praying to the Virgin Mary all the way, but the other guys simply stared in silence, listening to the sound of remote explosions. Thank God we did not miss the crucial left turn from the MSR, and soon stopped in the middle of an empty field to get out!
The truck left us there and sped back for the last group. Fully equipped and armed we had to trek 300 metres over an exposed field to 128 Brigade’s fortified base. At the very moment we set off, mortar shelling erupted behind us. We were running in heavy armoured vests, stumbling and falling in the snow – stopping to help each other up and push ahead. I was also carrying my laptop and DSLR camera, trying not to break them, and protecting them from shell fragments. I recall that I fell twice amid loud explosions – their flashes helping me navigate through the darkness to the fortifications. Numb from the freezing cold, our group finally made it to 128 Brigade. Jumping into the nearest trench I suddenly felt sharp pain in my hands and feet … but it disappeared as soon as my hands warmed in the gloves kindly given by my comrade, Lieutenant Maxim Tymochko. I found my box of cigarettes and had a quick smoke.
I saw my battalion comrades wandering around – those who had arrived at 128 Brigade earlier in the day, and who did not send their trucks back to collect us. We had a quick chat, exchanging emotions. I could not accuse them of anything. But when I said I would be praying for the safe arrival of the final group with our commander, Colonel Pocherniaev, one of these soldiers angrily blamed him and me, threatening to smack me in the face! It was obvious that the angry soldier – Viktor was his name – hated our commander, blaming him, in particular, and also higher Ukrainian commanders, for allowing our troops to be encircled at Debaltseve, and for the deaths of nineteen comrades.
Viktor had spent two long winter months in front-line trenches under daily shelling and enemy attacks, seeing comrades get killed day by day. I did not know Viktor personally at that time, but later, in March, when we were at the home base, I got to know him better. Through long talks I began to understand Viktor’s anger – in fact, ordinary soldiers clearly saw the many tactical and strategic mistakes of their commanders, who were not always qualified or prepared for fulfilling their tasks properly. But due to weak internal communications and coordination within the army, and the lack of effective counter-propaganda, Ukrainian reservists found few answers to their doubts and fears – especially under the relentless and pro-active “PSYOPs” conducted by the enemy.
(Edited by Christopher Summerville)