Debaltseve Diary 21: First Days of “Encirclement”

Road post Cross at Debaltseve Ukraine
Road post Cross at Debaltseve Ukraine
Entrance to Debaltseve. My photo in January 2015.

After capturing Lohvynove village and cutting the M-03 main supply route (MSR), illegal groups of armed separatists (supported by Russian Army regulars) took a major step towards encircling the city of Debaltseve, defended by large numbers of Ukrainian troops. Belligerent Russian propaganda media reports were already celebrating the encirclement as de facto, but the Ukrainian command insisted the enemy had only gained fire superiority over the supply routes. At any rate, over the next eight days (starting from 10 February), the supply of 2,500-plus Ukrainian troops in the Debaltseve area became difficult and dangerous.

Nevertheless, Ukrainian counter-attacks to regain control of the strategic village of Lohvynove continued (even after the successful withdrawal from Debaltseve), but the snow-bound terrain of hills, forests and frozen streams between Debaltseve and the key Ukrainian strongholds of Luhanske and Myronivskyi, gave the enemy time to organize an effective defence of Lohvynove. Meanwhile, the threat of encirclement at Debaltseve was rising daily with each new delivery of separatists, mercenaries and Russian armour.

The Russian General Staff quickly sent several fresh detachments directly from the Rostov region. According to the blog of volunteer Oleh Yarchuk, which shares intercepted classified reports of the Russian Army, they sent the 25th SpetsNaz Regiment of 49th Army, plus a group from 136th Infantry Brigade (both detachments belong to the Southern Command). But most importantly, Russia sent the whole tank battalion (up to thirty-one tanks) of 5th Tank Brigade, relocated from Ulan-Ude in Buriatia (a republic in Siberia). At least ten tanks and an APC with a hundred troops entered Lohvynove on the first day. On March 2, 2015 the badly wounded Buriat tank-crewman, Dorzhi Batomunkuev, confirmed this for the Russian newspaper “Novaya Gazeta”.

Ukrainian artillery shelled the captured area every day, helping convoys break through enemy lines via open fields. But no accurate data exists to show how many convoys successfully delivered arms and personnel to isolated Ukrainian units; or indeed how many of them were destroyed.

It is known, however, that on the evening of February 11, a truck carrying wounded soldiers from 128th Brigade broke through enemy lines to the hospital at Artemivsk. This success confirmed that “encirclement” was not yet complete. But during their dark journey through snowy fields, these Ukrainians survived the nightmare of direct enemy fire, which hit a second truck, killing thirteen of their comrades. This episode was confirmed by the deputy commander of 128th Brigade, Yevhen Bondar, for Hromadske TV. We now know that the T-72 tanks from Buriatia were equipped with night-vision targeting systems and the Russian tank crews had orders to kill.

The truck, that survived, carried a Sergeant of my 40th Battalion – Mykola Belyma, aged 29, from the Cherkassy region. He made it to the hospital alive, but died from wounds later. We, in our battalion, tried to evacuate the wounded as soon as possible – with help of other detachments – but it wasn’t easy:

“We have already got six wounded comrades, and one of them is in a critical condition. We urgently need to evacuate them, because their condition is worsening. They should be evacuated immediately. I understand that the MSR is cut at Lohvynove, but we must find a solution,” I reported from Debaltseve to “C” Sector command on February 11.

“We’ll connect you to the Sector’s chief doctor,” they replied.

I waited several minutes, and several times I tried to call back, as military communications were partially jammed. Our battalion’s chief medic, Sergeant Roman Pecheniuk, aged 44 from the Kirovograd region, was standing nearby, also waiting for advice. At that moment he was the only qualified doctor left in the whole battalion. Every day, under enemy shelling, he visited our strongholds to collect those wounded. He was anxious about their condition, because he was down to the last thirty doses of pain killers.

Finally the chief doctor of “C” Sector picked up the phone. I described the situation and suggested maybe asking the Red Cross, OCSE or other international organizations to help secure the evacuation of wounded soldiers. I felt that he understood the gravity of the situation, as he confirmed that yes, they would do everything possible. But the immediate solution was to gather all the wounded in the camp of 128th Brigade. At least they had more doctors and more medicine. I put down the phone and looked at Roman:

“Move them to 128th Brigade. All our wounded should be there. They will evacuate them,” I said.

“But the road is cut! And we all are virtually encircled . . .”

“Then they will try to find a route,” I replied.

“Oh, my God!”

Then we climbed up from the shelter and out onto the street to gasp some fresh winter air. Russian artillery actively shelled Debaltseve round the clock, so even this “luxury” was fraught with danger. Roman ran to another building to pick up those wounded. I put my encrypted radio into the pocket of my body-armour vest, and remained outside for several minutes, listening to the voices of comrades, reporting to me from various strongholds. I realized that if Roman, our only doctor, was to be wounded, then the whole battalion would face a critical situation.

In the other pocket of my vest I had an ordinary long-wave radio, for listening to news from around the world – the only radio frequencies not effectively jammed by the Russian Army. I took it out, turned it on, and heard the voice of the Ukrainian ATO spokesman:

“Debaltseve is still a hot spot on the front line in eastern Ukraine. Today, from the morning, terrorist forces shelled it fourteen times with high-calibre artillery. Infrastructure and many buildings have been ruined. Today, websites of so-called ‘Novorussia’ declared the encirclement of Ukrainians in Debaltseve. But the press centre of the anti-terrorist operation emphasises that all such reports are fake and aimed to create panic and distrust among Ukrainian troops.”

“There is no encirclement. This is the deception and outright fakery of those who desire it. Our troops in Debaltseve continue to receive supplies. We communicate and interact. More troops will be deployed there as planned,” assured the defence minister, Stepan Poltorak.

“We had some difficulties delivering ammunition, but today we found new ways to do it,” said the General Staff speaker.

Our battalion doctor, Roman, survived the long battle for Debaltseve. We asked the High Command to award him the Order for Bravery. The wounded evacuee, Sergeant Mykola Belyma, whom I mentioned earlier, also got his Order for Bravery. But too late. He died from wounds on February 18, on the day our battalion left Debaltseve.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)


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