Russian Regulars Take the Lead
Starting from 1 February 2015, Russian-led “Separatist” forces began their operation to capture the М-03 main supply route (MSR), connecting the cities of Debaltseve and Artemivsk. Previously, they had managed to wrest back the key Ukrainian stronghold of Vuhlegirsk, near the city of Horlivka, on our western flank. In order to suppress Ukrainian military capabilities, and dominate M-03, they advanced their artillery and began bombarding the road daily, limiting safe transit there. As a result, starting from early February, the Ukrainian Anti-Terrorism Operation (ATO) HQ closed this corridor to all except military traffic. However, shelling by enemy artillery was often random, so Ukrainian convoys still had a chance to drive back and forth without significant loss.
With the fall of Vuhlegirsk our western flank developed a dangerous hole. The situation was critical because no Ukrainian positions now remained to safeguard M-03, while the terrain—covered with ravines, streams and small forests—permitted enemy forces to advance unseen. Much later, on 29 August, talking to the Mirror of the Week newspaper, Colonel-General Victor Muzhenko (head of the General Staff) said that Ukrainian forces had only a small monitoring post on the MSR, consisting of 54 Intelligence Battalion (with an APC) in the village of Lohvynove.
At 5am on 9 February (after a week of bombardments) a SpecOps unit of the Head Intelligence Department of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” made for Lohvynove, via the village of Kalynivka. This unit effectively blocked the MSR with anti-tank mines & wooden obstacles and entered Lohvynove. Four Ukrainian monitors from 54 Battalion reported this enemy sortie to C Sector HQ before bugging out.
As it is well known from the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the village of Lohvynove and M-03 were first captured by a squad of some thirty fighters, 90 per cent of whom were experienced mercenaries from the Russian Federation, led by a Russian military officer, Serhey Petrovsky. Open-source data suggests the Russian 52 Spetsnaz Regiment was available to aid attacks on both Vuhlehirsk and Lohvynove. Russian state media rushed two TV crews to film this success and spread the propaganda message that “local separatists have closed the lid on the Debaltseve boiler” all on their own. Actually they had done no such thing: the Russians only cut the MSR in one place and entered a small village, so these media announcements were false. After the propaganda footage was filmed, the Russian unit quit Lohvynove, leaving local rebels and volunteer Cossacks (from Russia’s Don region) to guard the road. Meanwhile, regular Russian forces, including tanks of the 5th Brigade (hailing from Ulan-Ude in Russia’s Buriatia region), were hurrying up to Lohvynove via the newly created hole.
For six hours in a row, C Sector HQ did not officially warn Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve that the MSR had been cut, despite 54 Battalion’s report. I heard about this unexplained delay from Colonel Ihor Shcherbyna of my 40 Battalion, who visited C Sector HQ early that morning (for more on him, please read my #18 and #19 diary installments). Now I could only assume that the Debaltseve-based HQ was trying to avoid panic among 2,600 de-facto-encircled soldiers—mostly inexperienced reservists. Probably, HQ was also seeking solid confirmation from intelligence, and exploring all available responses. But every minute of delay cost the lives of Ukrainian soldiers and medics. During the whole morning of 9 February, the enemy was easily picking off stranded Ukrainians, as well as capturing the wounded.
The Morning of Executions
That morning was foggy and frosty on the outskirts of Debaltseve. Visibility on the ice-bound M-03 road—hidden between forests and hills—was down to just 100 metres. Radio communications were unstable between Debaltseve and Myronivske, while local cell-phone transmitters had been destroyed a week ago. And so Ukrainian convoys were approaching the village blind, deaf, and unaware they were entering a trap from which there was little hope of escape. Six long hours of slaughter had begun …
During the first hour, four servicemen from 128 Brigade’s rocket-artillery squadron were killed on the road near Lohvynove. Their ZiL and URAL trucks, fully loaded with ammunition, were stopped by rifle fire. The Ukrainians were driving from Artemivsk ammunition depot and did not reach their base, just 5 kilometres from the spot where they died. Among those killed were the commanders of two artillery units: Major Alex Hurtov and Senior Lieutenant Vasyl Bilak, together with the drivers, Sergeant Roman Chornobai and Soldier Roman Sovlych. As a consequence of this, urgently needed mortar shells and MLRS rockets were not delivered, and for ten days the Ukrainian artillery around Debaltseve was short of ammo: “We can lob a couple of shells there …” they would respond to our requests for fire support.
The next tragedy to hit the Ukrainian Army was the execution of four high-ranking officers, who were carrying classified General Staff documents and secret radio equipment in a UAZ jeep. At 5am they left the city of Artemivsk and—already shrouded in a communication black-out—drove 60 kilometres directly to their deaths. High speed can bestow a high chance of survival during random bombardments, but on 9 February terrorists shot up their speedy jeep right in front of the video cameras. At the last moment the driver, Sergeant Junor A. Makarenko, slammed the steering wheel hard right to avoid mines, dispersed on the road, but the car drove into a ditch with Colonel Ihor Pavlov (a tutor at the military college of Kyiv Technical University), Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Muzyka (from the Communications Department of the General Staff), as well as Colonel Serhyi Tsyganok and Major Sviatoslav Vasylenko (both from 330 Army Postal Unit).
Immediately prior to this, 47-year-old college tutor Colonel Ihor Pavlov had been appointed 1st Deputy to the Chief of the Anti-Terror Operation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The masked Russian commander of the so-called “DNR” SpecOps unit proudly posed before the TV cameras with the Colonel’s ID and a copy of his appointment order. The video footage showing the humiliation of the bleeding Pavlov and his counterpart, Tsyganok, is still on YouTube. They were searched, beaten, kicked with boots, and intimidated. “You will yet pay for everything!” said Colonel Pavlov in pain to the masked fighter, who—speaking with a clear Russian accent—points a Kalashnikov rifle at his chest, threatening execution.
Russian propaganda TV did not publish the exact moment of execution of those captured at Lohvynove. But we can assume the killings were conducted there, or in other places where POWs might be delivered for interrogation and then left to die. In March, “Separatists” released the corpses of three of the above-mentioned officers. But the fate of Major Vasylenko and Sergeant Makarenko remains unknown. In this context I should emphasize that according to information published by different anonymous bloggers, including Russians and those close to “Separatist” forces, mercenaries of the “DNR” SpecOps unit are not only experienced fighters (which they demonstrated in Vuhlegirsk and Lohvynove) but also barbarians in their treatment of Ukrainian POWs.
The next Ukrainian officer to be killed on M-03 was Major Mykyta Nedovodiev, from the Kyiv-based 101 Brigade of military police. At 8am he and a soldier, Vadym Fedorchenko, left Debaltseve in a KamAZ truck, driving to Kharkiv. There is no info on the circumstances of their killing. I can only assume they got shot the same way as the others, on the MSR or on a path near the village. A Russian photographer Max Avdeev—who, on 17 February, published on BuzzFeed photos from Lohvynove—saw many wrecked and burned-out trucks in the area, one of which is allegedly Nedovodiev’s KamAZ.
At least eight servicemen of 30 Brigade (from the town of Novo-Volynsk, Zhytomyr region) became the next victims of the Kalashnikov-toting specialists, hunting Ukrainians on the road. In two trucks, the eight Ukrainians left Debaltseve and soon got trapped. Forty-year-old Senior Lieutenant Serhyi Romanchuk (a volunteer of the first-wave draft—due to be discharged from the Army in just two weeks), 42-year-old Sergeant Serhyi Sukhenko, and 34-year-old soldier Serhyi Lialevych, were killed at once. Three others—43-year-old APC commander Vasyl Demchuk, Sergeant Pavlo Platsynskyi (who had celebrated his 37th birthday the day before) and 34-year-old Soldier Alex Berdes—were captured and executed. The execution was filmed on video and uploaded to the Web but later removed. “Separatists” buried two of the corpses near the village, but the devastated body of Vasyl Demchuk—with smashed head and minus an ear—was later found in a Donetsk mortuary. The 45-year-old Senior Sergeant Yevhen Korota (a volunteer of the third-wave draft from Luhansk region), and 36-year-old Soldier Vitalyi Katishov, were allegedly killed in the second ZiL truck. However, at the mourning ceremony, Korota’s friend, Alex Klymchuk, told the local Kyiv newspaper that he died not on 9 February but three days later. Inconsistencies surrounding the death-dates of servicemen are common during intense battles (such as those around Debaltseve in February 2015), as it is obviously hard for commanders to register multiple daily losses.
Unfortunately, the tragic morning of 9 February also took the lives of six Ukrainian medics. Initially, an ambulance of Khmenitsky Medic Squadron—hurrying up from Debaltseve to save those wounded on M-03—drove over a mine while taking incoming fire, killing 48-year-old Senior Soldier Anatolyi Sulyma and 25-year-old Soldier Mykhailo Baliuk. Colleagues later said that their corpses had gunshot wounds to the neck and head.
As soon as communication with Sulyma and Baliuk was lost, the group of Lviv rescuers of 1 Pyrohov Medical Squadron of the National Guard rushed to the rescue from Artemivsk. Members of that group knew the road was under constant enemy shelling, but they didn’t know about the new enemy roadblock and ambush. In a jeep, with an APC following behind, they drove over 55 kilometres south along M-03, looking for wounded or stranded comrades. But at the entrance to Lohvynove the jeep drove over a mine and exploded, wounding Captain Taras Konchevych, a 50-year-old soldier named Vasyl Zadorozhnyi, and two medics: 49-year-old Dmytro Lahunov and 49-year-old Maxim Ovcharuk. The medics following in the APC opened fire at the enemy ambush, killing one fighter. But a sudden mortar bombardment forced them to retreat, leaving four comrades to be killed.
Supply Routes are Blocked
Around 10am, the thick fog over Lohvynove lifted. No further Ukrainian units were approaching the village via M-03, and everything around fell silent. The bodies of Ukrainian servicemen were lying in ditches on both sides of the MSR, and their wrecked trucks were still smoking. Thus, the Russian mercenaries of the so-called “DNR” fully enjoyed their revenge on the “fascists”—as the Kremlin propaganda machine calls Ukrainian government troops—and retreated with their video fixers.
After the Russian squad departed, local “Separatists” and Russian Don Cossacks began collecting the corpses and building defence lines around the captured village. They were waiting for ammo trucks, as well as dozens of tanks, recently relocated from Russia (quite candidly). Inside the concrete pavilion, under a big “Lohvynove” sign at the bus stop on M-03, the fighters breakfasted on food lifted from the Ukrainian military vehicles: salads, bread, lard, fish and meat preserves, cookies, candies, etc. A couple of wounded rebels needed first aid and asked a woman in filthy clothes to give them anaesthesia shots: “I didn’t bring anything like that. You told me we were just going to check this area!” she replied to the wounded, appearing to be an inhabitant of the village who had guided them in.
At 11am, 2,600 Ukrainian troops inside Debaltseve finally got a radio warning from C Sector HQ: “Stop using the M-03! It’s allegedly blocked. Limit your radio conversations, because it’s suspected that radio devices are captured. Block or re-code any lost devices.” The “Separatists”, enjoying their breakfast at the bus stop in Lohvynove, heard this warning and joyfully realized they had time to build their stronghold: Ukrainian troops would not be able to counter-attack for the next few days.
By some unexplained circumstance, a group of four servicemen from my 40 Battalion, along with the deputy commander, Lieutenant Colonel Volodymyr Sarychev, who were going to Artemivsk that morning, were not warned. Around 10.30am they drove out of our main camp at Debaltseve in a UAZ Patriot jeep and joined the M-03. As I wrote in the 8th installment of this Debaltseve Diary, communication with them was soon lost. The relaxed, after-breakfast “Separatists” (left to their own devices on the departure of their brutal Russian leaders) didn’t kill these Ukrainians on the road, but merely stopped and captured them. They took the jeep and sent the group of POWs to the occupied city of Luhansk.
C Sector HQ, the Anti-Terror Operation, and the General Staff urgently needed accurate data on enemy forces in Lohvynove. But military intelligence structures in the Debaltseve area didn’t work as fast or as reliably as they should; which was later confirmed by the head of the General Staff, Colonel-General Viktor Muzhenko, on 29 August, in his interview for Mirror of the Week: “We didn’t possess clear information that time from our intelligence. We changed the chief of Head Intelligence Department, because we didn’t receive enough volumes of required data.” This explains why the Ukrainian Army immediately sent a small reconnaissance unit to Lohvynove, led by the brave Senior Lieutenant Volodymyr Hryniuk with four servicemen from 30 and 54 Battalions: “Our commander [Hryniuk] described that operation as ‘a walk’, but we were returning from there under heavy bombardments,” recalled a soldier nicknamed “Hibbon” for the Censor News website on 14 October.
The shelling of Lohvynove on 9 February was not only carried out by “Separatist” forces, but Ukrainian artillery too. After receiving authenticated info from the reconnaissance unit, Ukrainian artillerists conducted two massive bombardments of Lohvynove and Vuhlehirsk, in order to destroy enemies and prevent their reinforcement.
It was interesting for me to watch the work of the artillery (when it didn’t target us, of course). On the evening of 9 February, in complete darkness, I observed the shelling of Lohvynove from the roof of my battalion camp in Debaltseve: flashes and loud explosions on the northern horizon; 20–30 seconds between flash and explosion indicated a distance of 7–9 kilometres—and Lohvynove was indeed located at such a distance from us. However, bombardments caused only partial losses among the enemy troops, several of which were forced to relocate, as reported next day by a coordinator of the Information Resistance volunteer group (and member of the Ukrainian Parliament), Dmytro Tymchuk.
Meanwhile, at Debaltseve, Kramatorsk and Kyiv, generals and colonels were designing the “A Plan” for regaining control of Lohvynove, and looking for reserves to carry the plan into action. There was no hope of finding reserves within the blockaded Debaltseve formation of 2,600 personnel, because this would weaken the flanks of the defence line, through which “diversion groups” of masked Russian regulars were already infiltrating.
On 29 August, in his interview for the Mirror of The Week, the head of the General Staff, General Victor Muzhenko, said that the Ukrainian Army did not really have mobile reserves: there was a battalion from 30 Infantry Brigade (which had just finished a tough assignment at Donetsk airport); a unit from 1 Battalion/79 Airborne Brigade; a unit from 95 Airborne Brigade; and the tanks of 1 Tank Brigade. Consequently, a couple of squadrons from 30 Brigade were immediately sent to the village of Luhanske: one travelled in its own vehicles, while the other arrived by cargo train. Due to cooperation in the ATO, the National Guard offered its Donbas Battalion … but just a small part of it.
While developing the “A Plan” in Kyiv, General Muzhenko started to think about a “B Plan”—how to withdraw Ukrainian troops from the encirclement. But politics got in the way. Muzhenko faced global interests, not only the loss of men, territory, and the strategic railway hub at Debaltseve. And so the decision was made in Kyiv to postpone the retreat from Debaltseve until another round of peace negotiations between the leaders of Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia, due to be conducted at Minsk on 12 February. There was an idea not to let Putin “save face” on the global arena by prematurely abandoning Debaltseve, because he definitely wanted to capture this town at all costs.
The “A” and “B” plans were interconnected. The success of the second fully depended on the success of the first. During the coming week, Ukrainian commanders should seek to secure all roads, tracks and footpaths around Lohvynove, in order quickly and safely to withdraw as many troops and vehicles as possible. It is easy, however, to design combat operations on a map—and much tougher to design them under heavy international pressure, during an unprecedented offensive along the front line, and realize them effectively using exhausted troops with no reserves or proper intelligence data.
Following the bombardment of enemies in Lohvynove, the morning of 10 February seemed to give the Ukrainian Army hope that a full encirclement of Debaltseve could be avoided. The Ministry of Defence even shared a carefully worded message to calm things down: “The direction of road between Debaltseve and Artemivsk has been de-blocked.” Usually, an inattentive mass audience does not appreciate the true context of messages used in PsyOps. But those who know such methods realized the MoD did not actually say that M-03 and Lohvynove were now free …
In fact, the enemy fighters were getting ammo resupply, more units (mostly Russian regulars and mercenaries), APCs and tanks, which they placed in the hills around the village. Under the professional guidance of their Russian instructors, “Separatists” were digging trenches, setting ambushes, and building a stronghold to paralyze any Ukrainian convoy. And so our enemies did not disappear from Lohvynove: they disseminated towards neighbouring Nyzhne Lozove and Novohryhorivka villages, in order to widen their sector of fire: “Roads were mined. Any de-blocking did not happen,” said Ukrainian MP and former commander of the Donbas Battalion, Semen Semenchenko, on his Facebook page on 10 February.
The seriousness of the situation around Lohvynove was proven the same day. Around 3pm, vehicles carrying police chiefs of the Donetsk and Lviv regions were caught in an ambush, while trying to escape from Debaltseve. One of their vehicles was blown up by a mine, killing Dmytro Ternovyi, security chief of the Donetsk railway. Two other officers—Dmytro Zagaria (head of the Lviv region police) and Ihor Volskyi (commander of the Lviv Battalion)—were wounded and engaged in combat. They were rescued a couple of hours later, but they left the body of their comrade in the snowy fields. “Separatists” released it on 21 February.
(To be continued. Edited by Christopher Summerville)