Debaltseve Diary 11: The Start of My Withdrawal

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 …

Debaltseve fields Ukraine army
The main base of 40 Battalion at Debalsteve, hidden between hills. My photo.

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.
The driver, Pavlo Pavlovych 40 Battalion
The driver, Pavlo Pavlovych with his medals. My photo.

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).

Road post Cross at Debaltseve Ukraine
The road post ‘Cross’ at the western outskirts of Debaltseve city. My photo.

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)

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Debaltseve Diary 10: We’re Leaving

On the morning of 16 February 2015, Russian-backed terrorists destroyed our communication transmitter at Debaltseve, leaving 40 Battalion’s HQ cut off from several remote but important strongholds. We could not fix our radio connection because we had no spare transmitter. And, in any case, it was dangerous to send out the repair team, as intensive battles had already broken out in the city suburbs behind our positions. And so the last two days before our withdrawal became a waking nightmare for us in terms of military communications and round-the-clock management of a fighting detachment.

Debaltseve shelling
Debaltseve on fire. Photo by Serhyi Bobryk, 40 Battalion.

The only way we could maintain communications with our strongholds was by contacting relatives in Dnipropetrovsk or Kryvyj Rih via satellite, asking them to be our intermediaries and, using their own cell phones, call officers on the frontline and report back. Can you imagine such a thing on a modern battlefield? Well, it happened! Truth is we had to stop the enemy by any means and fulfill our mission of defending Debaltseve – even using open-line communications to target artillery …

Next day, on the morning of 17 February, we realized that two of 40 Battalion’s major strongholds – including “Moisha”, which contained ninety-two troops – were encircled and then surrendered, leaving a big gap in our eastern flank, through which enemy forces could easily pour into Debaltseve. This was a deadly threat for us, and for neighbouring detachments, as our line of retreat could quickly be severed. And so it led to the long-awaited forced withdrawal – one of the major reasons our General Staff would later be angry with 40 Battalion. But what choice had those ninety-two soldiers who surrendered – die without ammo and any hope of support, or try to save their lives via humiliating captivity?

Ukraine 40 battalion Debaltseve
The 40 Battalion servicemen at ‘Moisha’ stronghold. Photo by Piotr Andrusiechko.

From the afternoon of 17 February things on the battlefield changed so rapidly that I could not plan anything. I was simply following orders, hoping to survive. Our commander, Victor Pocherniaev, was instructed to withdraw, so he ordered us to prepare for the hazardous trip home. He also pulled back to our base fifty or so servicemen from the “Laguna” stronghold, leaving our eastern flank completely unprotected. At that moment I did not know (and I still do not know for sure) which senior officer planned our withdrawal or initiated it. The commanders of many Ukrainian detachments around Debaltseve would later claim it as their own long-awaited initiative, and their own tactical plan, approved at the last moment by the General Staff.

We calculated about 130 servicemen at our base, which was surrounded by carefully sown minefields, and connected to the MSR and the city by a single forest track running between hills. Thus, on 17 February, time became a matter of life and death. If the enemy advanced and cut this road, we would have to fight to the last round or surrender. Furthermore, we did not know which ultimate direction to take: should we head for C Sector (on the western outskirts of Debaltseve) or push 7km north-west to 128 Brigade’s main base? We only knew that we had to quit by midnight and reach the village of Novohrygorivka, in order to join the major forces preparing for withdrawal.

The problem for 40 Battalion was that we had been left with a limited number of working vehicles – not enough to carry over 100 personnel. All our APCs and most of our trucks had been gradually destroyed during daily shelling. And so, at the critical moment, we possessed only three beat-up trucks, a van and a sedan. The remaining non-working vehicles we had to burn and destroy. We also destroyed all our ammunition – over 200kg of explosives, thousands of shells, and hundreds of grenades.

Debaltseve Ukraine army baseMeanwhile, it was decided that our drivers would make two journeys to evacuate all personnel in the available vehicles. The first party – consisting of around seventy servicemen loaded into two trucks and a van – left the base about 3.30pm. They arrived safely at the main base of 128 Brigade, but no vehicles ever returned …

We called up 128 Brigade HQ to contact our comrades but they never replied. And so it looked like a betrayal. We were left with only one truck. The only reason why our comrades abandoned us was the massive shelling, which was just starting there, so the drivers were afraid to make the return trip. Moreover, as we later found out, several 40 Battalion guys quit their posts without notice and legged it – putting the rest of us at even greater risk should the enemy attack. In this way I realized for the first time in my life that war consists not only of heroism, but also shameful cases of fear, panic and betrayal.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Diary 9: Separatists’ Ultimatum by Radio

During six consecutive days, from 9–15 February 2015, 40 Battalion lost at least four digital radio sets: one was lost when our Colonel Volodymyr Sarychev was captured along with a group of “Intel” soldiers; another was lost when Major Olexander Vakulenko was killed in combat. In this way the Russian-backed Separatists grabbed a chance to monitor our communications and even talk to us via the stolen radios.

Ukraine army 40 battalion communication room
At 40 Battalion’s communication room at Debaltseve. My photo.

I am still unsure if it was a good idea to talk with the enemy before re-encrypting our digital signal and disabling the stolen sets. Maybe it was tactically smart to obtain some information on our opponents’ capabilities? On the other hand, the enemy used our stolen radios to conduct “PSYOPs” against us, demanding that we lay down our arms and quit Debaltseve.

When the commander of the Russian group that ambushed our Major Vakulenko contacted us via the major’s radio, telling us to give up Debaltseve, we were not shocked or surprised. We had already heard the same warning from the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, only days before – during the “Minsk-2” peace talks. Indeed it was shameful that the Russians – despite Putin’s assurances of a ceasefire and peaceful resolution – resumed their deadly attacks the very day after the Minsk agreement was signed.

Debaltseve fire Ukraine withdrawal
City of Debaltseve after shelling in late February. Photo by Serhyj Bobryk, 40 Battalion.

The enemy troops, which almost surrounded us at Debaltseve in mid-February, simply executed the order of their Kremlin chief. Later it would be reported (by government officials, the media and volunteers) that Ukrainian forces defending Debaltseve were outnumbered five-to-one. Thus, as officials confirmed, 80 per cent of the 15,000–17,000 enemy troops deployed to capture Debaltseve were Russian regular forces; in contrast, we had about 3,000 in the area.

Russian regulars were carefully concealed, cloaked and camouflaged – both in the flesh and on the radio airwaves. On the battlefield they were dressed up in Ukrainian Army uniforms, complete with our insignias. During our radio talks with the enemy on 15 February, the commander of a Russian diversion group used the nickname “Bondar”, introducing himself as chief of the Separatist “Rus” Battalion. But his way of talking – and the deliberate Russian accent – exposed him as a well-prepared military professional, whose aim was to coax and cajole our 40 Battalion commander into a meeting and kill him.

“Bondar” demanded an immediate meeting with our commander “for peace talks” – all the time dodging questions about the fate of our captured and wounded comrade, Dmytro Kharatin. In addition, during an hour of conversation, “Bondar” did not order a ceasefire to make any “peace talks” possible. These signs proved that we were dealing with an unreliable person.

I recorded a fragment of the radio conversation and – despite C Sector’s accusation that we had illegally negotiated with the enemy – the audio proves that our commander refused to surrender or quit. Here is the transcript:

COMMANDER: I’m asking you, where did you get my radio?
BONDAR: From a captive. He’s alive …
COMMANDER: Brother, please tell me his nickname.
BONDAR: Not now. I have to find those who took him. My people are going for him now … Man, I don’t know what you think of our talks, but let’s resolve the issue!
COMMANDER: I’m repeating to you that yesterday a ceasefire was declared. We don’t want to kill anyone. We want peace. Do you understand me?
BONDAR: I understand you. But this ceasefire … Look, we don’t attack your Poltava or Kyiv! Not one of us went to your EuroMaidan protest when you stood there with guns.
COMMANDER: I came not from Maidan. I’m a professional army officer. I have my orders. I came here according to my instructions. What should I do – become a coward?
BONDAR: No, I don’t say that. But you should consider that you are fighting ordinary people – miners. And you have children at home. Why do you shell us? We want to stop this stupid war.

[At this point, other Ukrainian servicemen from a volunteer battalion nicknamed “Donbas” joined the radio conversation …]

DONETSK: Hey, “Bondar”, I hear you well. I’m personally from Donetsk and fight for my land. If you want peace, come to us in peace, and there will be no war. But if you want war, then it will continue.
BONDAR: I understand. Then let’s meet! Are you really from Donetsk?
DONETSK: Yep, brother, I’m from Donetsk. And I saw how all this separatism scenario started, and who paid for it and managed it! So please stop assuring us that you guys came in peace. I want to make my home in Donetsk. And 80 per cent in my detachment are Donetsk citizens. But you f***ers fight against our own people, our citizens, and my parents: so stop saying that you fight against the West!
[There was no reply from “Bondar”…]
DONETSK: Look, I’m talking to you in the proper Russian language! But we continue firing at each other. Your DPR or LPR – it doesn’t matter to me what state formation you’re trying to set up – you should finally chose: where are you going and what do you want? But people know what they want for a long time – people want peace! Why do you need to fire at anyone?
BONDAR: I agree with you! I am also against this war: so I am going to talk with you in person, but without being targeted by weapons. Let’s solve the issue!

[The commander of 40 Battalion rejoins the conversation …]

COMMANDER: And I’m telling you as well – let’s sort something out. Let’s make peace. But you and I alone will not make peace, right? I will not leave my positions. Do you hear and understand me?
BONDAR [sadly]: I hear you … Some of yours are firing at us from grenade launchers now.
COMMANDER: And I was just shelled by something heavier … Look, I am for peace. But if we agree to make peace, then this peace will not be according to your rules only, but by mutual consent.
BONDAR: Let’s have mutual consent! Let’s solve it! But tell your guys to stop firing at us. And let’s meet finally to talk in person, not by radio!

Ukraine army40 Battalion radio
Officers of 40 Battalion during radio talk with the enemy. My photo.

Of course, the personal meeting between the Russian diversion group commander and our battalion commander did not happen. And none of us followed the enemy ultimatum to lay down our arms. In addition, one of our officers sent this Russian on his way with a clear, unmistakable message in the Russian criminal jargon. Then we digitally disabled all the stolen radio stations.

Debaltseve Diary 8: Lt. Colonel in Captivity

Lt. Colonel Volodymyr Sarychev, the deputy commander of 40 Battalion, was captured by Russian “kazacks” from the Rostov region, who, on 9 February, cut our Debaltseve–Artemivsk MSR [major supply route] at the village of Lohvynove. He spent seventy-eight days in captivity, returning home on 29 April 2015, after long and tortuous negotiations for his release.

Colonel Sarychev Captivity 40 Battalion Ukraine

Sarychev is a professional army officer with over twenty years’ military experience. He started his career in the Soviet army and served in several detachments across the former Soviet Union. Before his draft on August 2014 he was a military pensioner in Ukraine, but the newly created reservist battalions urgently needed such qualified high-ranking officers – so he returned to serve, leaving his teaching job at the Dnipropetrovsk Honchar University.

At the beginning of February, Lt. Colonel was planning his next trip from our base at Debaltseve to the city of Artemivsk, about 40km to the north. He was going to deliver some documents and call his wife and son (cell-phone communications at our location had been cut by the enemy), but also to pick up a postal package containing night-vision equipment sent by volunteers. For several days the lt. colonel had been asking me to go with him to Artemivsk, where we could check the Internet, read the latest news, and grab a decent cup of coffee. I liked this suggestion but refused, suspecting that any excursion via the Debaltseve–Artemivsk MSR would be unsafe – especially in an unarmoured vehicle. Indeed, I advised the colonel not to go, and abandon altogether this “trip to Artemivsk” idea.

Debaltseve Artemivsk road Ukraine
Road from Debaltseve to Artemivsk in January 2015. My photo.

But Sarychev dashed to Artemivsk on the morning of Monday, 9 February, joining a group of three battalion Intelligence soldiers in our commander’s UAZ-Patriot jeep. They left our main base around 10.30am, unaware that several hours earlier the Russian-backed Separatist forces had effectively cut the major supply route. We received this news from C Sector, after a lengthy delay, just ten minutes after the colonel’s party sped off.

We heard nothing about them for two consecutive days, when someone called our battalion commander with the news that four of our servicemen had been captured by Russian “kazacks” at the village of Lohvynove. The incident was also reported by Russian LifeNews TV, though I only found this video report on YouTube after our withdrawal from Debaltseve on 18 February.

Colonel Sarychev captivity separatists Donetsk
Screenshot from Russian TV report.

Our POWs – being under severe duress with threats against their lives – were obliged to say on TV what their Russian captors demanded: false and critical statements regarding 40 Battalion and Ukraine’s military as a whole. After his release from captivity in April, Lt. Colonel Sarychev told me in private talks that the “kazacks” threatened to shoot his comrades in the legs if he did not say what they wanted on camera.

Ukraine army Colonel Sarychev captivity Donetsk
Colonel in captivity. Photo by DNR.

I always believed that Lt. Colonel Sarychev did not betray the Ukrainian Army – either before the ill-fated trip to Artemivsk or afterwards, during his seventy-eight days in captivity. But following his capture, my fellow-officers and I investigated this case, as there were some strange factors – for example, why did all three of our battalion’s “Intel” guys decide to go to Artemivsk, leaving their living room completely empty? However, after my talks with the lt. colonel, it became clear that the whole incident was just an unfortunate war-zone fluke.

Sarychev said that he and four other captives from our battalion – soldiers Lazarenko, Makukh, Gerasimenko, and captain Parkhomenko – had been kept in basements in Luhansk and later in Donetsk. Representatives of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” sometimes beat and humiliated them during interrogations. Ukraine army 40 Battalion POWs captivityThe soldier Gerasymenko was stabbed in the legs with a knife. On one occasion the captives miraculously avoided being burned alive in their tiny basement room, when a fire broke out in the corridor during the night.

Lt. Colonel Volodymyr Sarychev was released on 29 April 2015, thanks to the efforts of the “Officers’ Corps” – a Ukrainian volunteer organization comprised of former military officers. The four other POWs from 40 Battalion are still in captivity, without any immediate hope of release.

Colonel Sarychev 40 battaion Ukraine army POW release
Volodymyr Sarychev with his son & volunteers after his release. Photo by “Officers’ Corps”.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Diary 7: The Battalion’s Chapel

When we arrived at the city of Debalteseve to relieve the 25th Infantry Battalion (which had served there for over four months), we found that they had set up a makeshift chapel room inside the main base. That was great for me and many in our detachment, because we certainly needed spiritual support in the war zone.

Debaltseve Ukraine army church

Our predecessors in 25 Battalion said they had a priest (chaplain) of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, who visited them regularly and even stayed for a while. I found the cell-phone number of that priest, Ivan Isayevych, who had come from the far-western province of Zakarpattia to help front-line Ukrainian troops with their spiritual needs, and who had lived at Debaltseve for several months. I contacted him a couple of times with invitations. However, due to the complicated operative situation in our area – which was deteriorating week by week – he could not come to us for Orthodox Christmas. I called him again in late January, to invite him to our Epiphany Day celebrations, but was distressed to learn he’d been badly injured during the recent MLRS bombardment of the city, and was currently being treated at the hospital in Artemivsk.

Debaltseve Ukraine Catholic priest

We tried to invite other priests, including Orthodox ones, but due to our limited contacts in religious circles we could find no courageous churchmen (Orthodox or Catholic), and so no representatives of these two major Ukrainian churches ever visited 40 Battalion during our long stay in Debaltseve. However, two Protestant priests – one local (from the liberated city of Sloviansk – a survivor of the separatists’ occupation) and the other foreign (from the US) – visited our base in January to offer spiritual solace. I helped with English interpretation when our officers (including our battalion commander, Victor Pocherniaev) spoke with the American. And we prayed together. But those two priests never returned – the situation was becoming too dangerous.

Protestant priests Debaltseve Ukraine

And so, without an assigned priest, our chapel room was abandoned – becoming a temporary billet for new troops awaiting deployment to the front. But in my heart I felt that prayers to God should be spoken and heard again in the chapel. Therefore, as soon as the last soldier left this room, Volodymyr Sarychev (our deputy commander) and I agreed to take care of the chapel as best as we could. We cleaned it, cleared the garbage, and boarded up the broken windows. I found lots of Bibles, New Testaments and prayer books in the Ukrainian language, collected by the priest Ivan Isayevych, as well as pictures with saints.

Debaltseve Ukraine army church chapel

I also found in the chapel something that I – being a faithful Catholic – found unpleasant: a black key ring in the form of a human skull. Previously, in Kyiv, I had worked at a Christian radio station, reading and “voicing over” books on exorcism – the expulsion of an evil spirit from persons or places. And so I threw this key ring far away, as it may have been a “bad omen” or additional factor in the early deaths of comrades at Debaltseve. Remarkably, after I removed this key ring, fatalities in our unit immediately ceased and no one was killed for ten consecutive days.

Debaltseve Ukraine army church chapel cross

I found no cross or crucifix inside the chapel, so I made four wooden crosses, using a simple knife. I carved a big cross for the chapel, smaller ones for my roommates (Colonel Sarychev and Major Vakulenko), and another small one for the battalion communication room.

We prayed not only in the chapel. During the bombardments I read my prayer book aloud in the shelter, surrounded by comrades (many of them hardly knew a prayer, but in moments of danger they eagerly heard mine and joined in). On one of the last days before the withdrawal, our commander bid me read aloud his prayer book in the Old Slavic language, used by the Orthodox Church in the Middle Ages. That language is not so difficult for me to read and understand, so I read this prayer book for our troops too.

Debaltseve Ukraine army church chapel

Our chapel was completely destroyed by Russian-backed separatist artillery on the night of 13 February 2015, together with the big wooden cross and all the religious stuff. The other hand-made crosses were lost in my ruined living room. I am just sorry that, in the hurry of withdrawal, I forgot to rescue from the communication room the only cross that was left undamaged …

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Diary 5: Major Vakulenko

Olexander Vakulenko, deputy commander of 40 Battalion, was killed in combat a day after the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement was signed. He was one of my roommates in the main camp. His death occurred in the eastern suburb of Debaltseve on 15 February, around 2pm. That morning he and I had been digging the debris from our demolished room, but in the afternoon he got an order from C Sector to coordinate the combat operations of a National Guard squad on the frontline …

Debaltseve ruins major Vakulenko 40 battalion
Olexander Vakulenko explores our destroyed living room. My photo.

The NG [National Guard] unit was delayed, arriving at the agreed place two hours late, so the major and three of our soldiers had to fight against an enemy group three times larger. One of the soldiers who survived this mission told how they had awaited the NG squad inside a tunnel under the railway in the north-eastern suburb of Debaltseve. (Many in the army do not respect the NG because they often fear combat operations, while presenting themselves as real warriors). However, instead of the expected NG squad, Major Vakulenko and his soldiers saw three armed men approaching with yellow stripes on their uniforms (a sign of Ukrainian troops in those days). Thinking these men were representatives of the long-awaited NG unit, Vakulenko let them advance in order to talk. Seconds later, after Vakulenko had identified his party as Ukrainians from 40 Battalion, he was told: “If so, then surrender!”

Debaltseve ruins major Vakulenko 40 battalion
Major Vakulenko in Debaltseve between bombardments. My photo.

Suddenly the major realised he was facing an enemy diversion squad. Ten more men with yellow stripes appeared above the railway tunnel, also targeting the Ukrainians. A rifle shot rang out, followed by a burst of machine-gun fire, and the two groups joined battle. Major Vakulenko was struck by a grenade, hitting him in the chest or face, killing him instantly. A a witness remembered, a Senior Sergeant Volodymyr Kharatin fell, being probably wounded by a Kalashnikov bullet, and got captured. The two remaining Ukrainians popped smoke grenades and were lucky to escape, avoiding yet more enemies rushing to the scene in a truck.

Sr. Sergeant Kharatin has spent almost 5 months in captivity, and was released on 10 July 2015. Talking to Kryvyi Rih city newspaper ‘Domashnia Gazeta’, he told his version of that combat episode.

“We saw 20 persons of the enemy squad. Forces were unequal, because there were only 5 of us. We aimed Kalashnikovs at them, they did the same as well. If we would start firing, then we’ll simply die as inside a shooting gallery. They shouted: “Surrender!” I left my rifle to the deputy commander and rushed towards the enemy to obscure their firing sector. My guys were left behind my back. Then Separatists started firing at us. I fell down, and my guys had seconds to run. I wanted to shield my guys, rushing towards the enemy. It was my ill-considered decision, like I got crazy. However, not everybody had a chance to run. Major Vakulenko was shot down,” recalled survived Volodymyr Kharatin.

The National Guard unit finally arrived at the agreed rendezvous and discovered the aftermath of battle. They found Vakulenko’s body and returned it to us. But the major’s radio was missing. Later, the commander of the enemy diversion squad would use the stolen radio to demand that we lay down our arms and quit Debaltseve (I will write more about this in my next blog instalment). Of the wounded soldier Kharatin there was no sign.

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Major Vakulenko posing in front of the destroyed living room in Debaltseve. My photo.

The remaining officers of 40 Battalion, including myself, took the body of Olexander Vakulenko to the iron pavilion in our camp, and left him there in the winter cold, together with the corpse of Sergeant-major Valeriy Elefteriady, who had been killed the day before.

For five consecutive days we could not deliver the bodies of our dead comrades to the hospital in Artemivsk. Several attempts were made to get our dead and wounded out, but they were unsuccessful, as we were practically encircled at Debaltseve. One such convoy got trapped north of Novogrigorivka village and was abandoned in the fields under enemy fire. For days our guys saw those abandoned trucks but could not reach them due to constant heavy shelling.

By coincidence, the broken body of Vakulenko’s protégé, Senior Lieutenant Arthur Miskiv, was left in one of those trucks. He was shot at the frontline on the day before the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement was signed. Vakulenko painfully accepted the news of his student’s death. For several days Arthur Miskiv’s body lay in the iron pavilion, in the bitter cold. At night, with flashlights, and accompanied by the incessant sound of shelling, Major Vakulenko and I visited that place to pay our respects. But I did not imagine that in a couple of days I would be carrying the dead body of Olexander Vakulenko to the same iron pavilion, climbing up the same stairs again and again …

Our Major Vakulenko did not lay down his arms. He fought and stopped the enemy. He sacrificed his life for us, as a hero. He is a true example of a Ukrainian Army officer. Eternal respect and memory to him!

Major Vakulenko Debaltseve 40 battalion
Olexander Vakulenko in front of the iron pavilion at our base in Debaltseve. My photo.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Diary 4: Grad Rocket On A Balcony

I avoided injury or death (yet again) on the evening of 6 February 2015, when 40 Battalion’s main base at Debaltseve came under heavy shelling. The days prior to this major bombardment had been calm and we were starting to relax, renewing our routine of supplying the troops and maintaining the defensive line. But that Friday evening, around 6.30pm, our base was suddenly shelled with Russian MLRS BM-21 Grad and high-calibre mortars.

Debaltseve MLRS rocket
Rests of Russian MLRS Grad rocket in our base at Debaltseve. My photo.

On that evening (as I recall), I had been drafting several orders for our battalion commander, typing them on my laptop. However, some additional corrections were suggested by my roommate and deputy commander, Colonel Volodymyr Sarychev, so I fulfilled his request and then went to another room to print out the drafts. (Three days later Colonel Sarychev was captured by Russian ‘kazacks’ from the Rostov region, who, on 9 February, effectively cut our Debaltseve–Artemivsk MSR [major supply route] at the village of Lohvynove. Sarychev spent seventy-eight days in captivity, returning home on 29 April after long and tortuous negotiations for his release.)

However, the quality of our old printer — donated by volunteers — was low, so the colonel suggested I print out the draft orders on a second, newer machine. The fastidiousness of the colonel, which sometimes annoyed me, actually saved both our lives that evening because — as we quit the room in search of the new printer — we avoided being hit by a sudden rocket attack.

Well, the new printer did not follow my commands, and a soldier who perfectly knew this machine was absent at the base. And so, for some time, I could not print out my drafts correctly. Officers and soldiers gathered round to give their controversial advice about printing, but their suggestions confused me even more. Moreover, a soldier arrived asking me to switch off the computer and printer, in order to make the replacement of independent electricity generators possible. I kindly asked him to wait just a couple of minutes, as I had to print the final pages …

Debaltseve MLRS rocket damage
A hole made by Russian MLRS Grad rocket in the balcony of our base at Debaltseve. My photo.

As the last page came spluttering out of the printer and I handed it to the colonel, several powerful explosions were heard behind the wall to our right. Suddenly everything started to shake as in an earthquake — plaster falling from the ceiling and walls, accompanied by desperate cries …

Debaltseve MLRS rocket damage
Damaged living room. Part of Russian MLRS Grad rocket is wisible in the wall. My photo.

One of the Russian MLRS BM-21 Grad rockets had hit a balcony some 15-20 metres from me, demolishing the concrete ceiling and falling into the living room. Debris from the ceiling severely wounded a soldier who, at that moment, was sleeping near the wall. We immediately sent him to the hospital in Artemivsk.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Diary 3: Shell Fragment In My Bed

The main base of our 40 Battalion was first shelled on the evening of 28 January 2015. The bombardment lasted several hours, stopping at midnight, when my friends and I returned to our bedroom on the second floor of the building. Two of my neighbours — Major Olexander and Colonel Volodymyr — confidently assured me, as a less-experienced officer, that the danger had passed and we could safely sleep. At the time we did not realise that this was not some random attack by “separatist” troops, but the first step in a three-week offensive supported by regular Russian forces, with the aim of capturing the city of Debaltseve.

Debaltseve night
Debaltseve at night. My photo.

And so having been assured everything was OK, I sank down in my bed to grab some sleep. But seconds later I sprang up in surprise, having spotted a hole in my sleeping bag and in the wall nearby. I stood beside the bed, staring at the ripped sleeping bag, trying to figure out if I might somehow have caused the damage myself. Then a thought struck me: “Could a shell fragment from the bombardment have hit my bed?”

And indeed it was true. When I turned my gaze to the window to check the possible trajectory of such a fragment, I saw a hole in the wooden window-shield — and the window itself also had a small hole, the diameter of a human finger. The shell fragment hit the window first and then flew over my bed — ripping the sleeping bag — before hitting the wall opposite and rebounding into the wooden panel of the bed. It took me hours to locate that fragment but I found it and took a photo.

Debaltseve shelling fragment bed
The shell fragment in a downright wooden panel of my bed and a hole in the wall. My photo.

As previously mentioned, the shell fragment was small, but razor-sharp, and it had flown with deadly speed. This fragment was from a rocket launched with a powerful long-range Russian MLRS BM-27 Uragan, or its equivalent MLRS BM-30 Smerch, equipped with restricted cluster warheads, which explode in the air, sending thousands of lethal fragments to kill anyone caught in the blast radius below. Our wooden window-shields could not protect us from them.

Cluster munition fragment Debaltseve
That cluster munition fragment in my bed. My photo.

From that night I slept on the bed no more! Two weeks later, on 13 February, the whole bedroom was completely destroyed by enemy mortars and rockets.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Diary 1: First Shelling

Attached to the 40th Infantry Battalion of the Ukrainian Army in the so-called ‘fire pocket’ at Debaltseve city (in the eastern Donetsk region), I started a diary about all that happened day by day. Now I am beginning to share these notes with you. They will help you imagine what we faced in this war.

Debaltseve shelling

The enemy started shelling our main base at 6.30pm on Wednesday, 28 January 2015. At that very moment I was preparing dinner in our two-room apartment on the second floor of the building that served as our base – a former children’s summer camp. I heated up the iron stove – firewood cheerfully crackling inside – and our rice pudding was almost ready in the saucepan. I wasn’t alone – Major Olexander Vakulenko, our deputy commander, was nearby in an adjacent room. (On 15 February he would be killed by a Russian diversion squad on the first day of the declared “ceasefire” as specified in the Minsk agreements.) Later, I realized that this first shelling was the beginning of a prolonged and deadly campaign against Ukrainian positions around Debaltseve, which led to our withdrawal on 18 February. The first series of bombardments lasted for six days in a row, till the morning of 2 February.

We had already become accustomed to the sound of distant, sporadic shelling. But on the evening of 28 January mortar shells and self-propelled rockets, launched from Russian MLRSs (‘Grads’), began falling on our base so frequently that, as it seemed to me, they were exploding several times per second.

Major Vakulenko and I immediately fell to the floor. Being without body armour and Kevlar helmet, I quickly scrambled behind the iron stove for protection. During several minutes of loud, intensive shelling, I realized with alarm that the explosions were fast approaching. The last explosion was the loudest. For the first time in my life I heard multiple parts of a fragmented rocket hit the metal roof of our building right above my head.

As soon as the first wave of shelling ceased, Major Vakulenko ordered us out of the apartment and into an underground shelter nearby. Luckily I was already wearing a winter coat, hat and boots. Thus I hurriedly grabbed my Kevlar helmet and, fighting fear, ran out onto the balcony and downstairs to the underground shelter. In fact, it wasn’t a really a proper shelter — just a tiny room used by the on-duty communication officer.

Unsurprisingly, this room was already full of officers and NCOs. The shelling had caught everyone unawares, so they scuttled to find cover close by. I saw how the battalion commander tried to manage this terrible situation, speaking by radio and ordering the troops to hide. The guys in the room were standing or sitting anywhere they could find a space, nervously awaiting the end of the ordeal.

Meanwhile I had left my armoured vest up on the second floor, under my bed: that’s why, being naively brave, I used a pause in the shelling to quit the shelter and run upstairs to grab it. This attack was the first in my life, so I didn’t fully understand the danger I faced. I relied mostly on the advice of older and, as I thought, more experienced officers. But, as I later found out, this was a “baptism of fire” for some of them too.

And so I dashed upstairs, back to my room, and quickly snatched my armoured vest and Kalashnikov, plus a rucksack containing my laptop, DSLR camera, and some other small things. But as I made for the door I suddenly remembered that I should lock the apartment – my old habit of keeping everything secure “kicking in”. And so I started looking for the lock on tables and shelves in the corridor, but couldn’t find it in the usual locations. Thus I was delaying my exit to safety. As the seconds sped by I became increasingly uneasy, trying to find that stupid lock! But this brief delay saved my life …

Debaltseve shelling

I remember that, being full of fear, I decided to run for the exit door. At that very moment a deafening explosion to the right forced me to fall back into the corridor and hug the concrete wall, pulling my bag and Kalashnikov behind. Several thunderous explosions followed, shaking the building like an earthquake. And then … silence. I darted downstairs – successfully making it back to the shelter.

In the darkness of a winter evening I couldn’t see the consequences of this concentrated shelling. But the following morning I clearly realized how much I had risked. The previous evening our base had been shelled simultaneously by Russian MLRSs ‘Grads’ and powerful 120mm calibre mortars. A big crater, caused by a mortar shell, was in the backyard near the building, a mere 70–80 metres from my room. The walls of the base were punctured with holes and multiple pieces of shrapnel covered the ground and our balcony too. It was our incredible good fortune that the battalion suffered no losses or casualties.

The location of the shell hole in the backyard led me to conclude that I had miraculously survived with God’s help, because at the moment of the explosion I was standing indoors behind a thick concrete wall. But if I hadn’t delayed exiting the apartment, I would have run right into the blast-area of death.

(Edited by Christopher Summerville)

Debaltseve Under First Attacks

Here is my blog post is dated by January 27, 2015 which I wrote in Debaltseve and planned to publish online. But couldn’t do it due to intensification of the battle and termination of internet connection. 

Ukraine war APC Debaltseve

“Start your APC’s engine! You have ammo, right?!” says one of our unit commanders loudly to the armored personal carrier’s driver, while climbing on top of it. “Hurry up! Get us to the Bee!” he adds. “The Bee” is the nickname of another unit commander, who’s just started repelling a terrorists’ attack at his positions 5 kilometers from ours. A dozen of soldiers with Kalashnikovs, grenade launchers and ammo quickly jump into the APC, and then the vehicle rushes off to the north through snow-covered fields.

For several days in a row since Saturday, January 24, pro-Russian terrorists have been attacking our positions around Debaltseve town in eastern Donetsk region. From early morning till late evening, and sometimes during the nights, they have been shelling, firing and trying to break our defense lines. Their attacks couldn’t be possible without support from Russia, which sends them heavy weaponry, lots of ammunition, and military instructors as well.

Debaltseve is a strategic railway transportation hub between the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and the Russian Federation to the east through an uncontrolled border. Separatists could use this hub to ship stolen coal to Russia and receive supplies in return. Ukrainian forces took Debaltseve back in July 2014. However, possession of this railway station has always been risky for Ukraine – an area of several hundred square kilometers around it is surrounded by enemy forces from three sides, and a 35 km long road to the north-west is an only connection to Kyiv. No doubt, it was a matter of time when terrorists would want to re-take such an important railway hub.

We thought Russians may start attacking Debaltseve in early spring, when snow would melt. But they launched the offensive in the middle of winter. Army intelligence reported some enemy preparations, but they looked relatively minor in scope and troops involved. So no one expected anything serious.

The activities of enemy troops weren’t massive in first several days of the offensive, apart from heavy shelling, to which we’d got already used. First, they sent 10 tanks and some APCs to our remote position, located far away from Debaltseve in the fields. The enemy probably thought that it would be easy to crush it. After 4 of their tanks were destroyed, and one of their tank drivers was captured, the enemy troops quickly retreated. On the 2nd day, the Russia-sponsored terrorists lined up in a chain and rushed with tanks at another base, but were pushed back again. On the 3rd day, we saw several random enemy tanks, which fired 3-4 shells at our positions from a safe distance of 2 kilometers and quickly drove away.

We lost 2 servicemen in 3 days. The enemy, according to information by our Sector HQ, lost much more – over 300.

Edited by @ReggaeMortis1