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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Edited by Christopher Summerville)