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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)