4 February 2015

Latest on the Battle of Debaltseve in the Eastern Ukraine

Andrew E. Kramer
February 1, 2015

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine — Ukrainian soldiers rattled along the snowy streets here in armored personnel carriers with the hatches battened down, their helmeted heads safely below plates of steel.

A few drunks staggered along the sidewalks, oblivious to the booms of artillery echoing through town.

Stray dogs scurried about, and in another sign that nobody ventures above ground for anything but pressing business, the carcass of one dog lay uncollected, frozen in the middle of a street.

For more than a week, this unremarkable small town in eastern Ukraine has been almost surrounded by attacking rebels. And because enveloping maneuvers are common in this nine-month war, there is even a phrase for it: “falling into a kettle.”

Debaltseve in the kettle is a glum place. “It’s just a horror living here,” said one woman in a crowd of mothers clutching children and packed bags made of plastic at a bus stop, waiting for a ride out.

After seizing a strategic airport outside Donetsk a week ago, the Russian-backed rebels have turned their sights on this town, valuable for its railroad switching yards, which they will need to revive the economy in areas under their control.

As fighting rages on in places like Debaltseve, the prospects for peace in Ukraine look dim.

A new round of cease-fire talks among Ukraine, Russia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and separatists broke down Saturday evening, dashing hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough.

Ukraine’s representative, former President Leonid D. Kuchma, said Sunday that disagreement arose over a rebel demand that any new cease-fire line should reflect gains from an offensive that began last month, rather than the line established under a Sept. 5 agreement in Minsk, Belarus.

In Europe, too, hopes for diplomacy are fading. “Russian separatists no longer accept Minsk agreement,” Carl Bildt, the former foreign minister of Sweden, wrote on Twitter. “And behind them is Moscow.”

It is towns like Debaltseve that have seen the worst of the fighting.

Rebels have hemmed in the town on three sides and are trying to close the remaining gap, or the mouth of the kettle — an exposed, 31-mile stretch of highway across the open steppe that is being defended by Ukrainian troops.

The stakes are high for the defense of Debaltseve. If the rebels seize the road, something that seems possible at any moment, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians could be trapped in an area exposed to surrounding artillery. Already, the death toll is steadily rising; on Saturday, artillery killed 12 people here.

The road is both the only means for civilians to evacuate and the only supply route for the army.

“We have closed the kettle,” the main rebel leader, Aleksandr V. Zakharchenko, told Russian television Friday, making clear his intention to cut off and then capture Debaltseve.

“Anybody who leaves this kettle will be in the interlocking field of fire of our artillery,” Mr. Zakharchenko added, referring to the shelling of the road. “From today, the road is under fire.”

The authorities are scrambling to evacuate residents in minibuses, but their numbers are inadequate; each departing vehicle leaves hundreds of women and children behind at the bus stop. When this happens, they trudge back to a dank basement in a train station in which they have been sheltering since the siege began.

After nearly two weeks living in a basement without electricity, Ludmilla L. Ulyanenko, a retired nurse, decided to risk the road out on Saturday morning — only to find that all seats on a bus were taken.

After missing one bus, she stood on the sidewalk, pursing her lips in worry. “This whole situation reminds me of the sinking of the Titanic,” she said, gesturing at the women standing about, some crying. “They also stood around waiting for lifeboats, and there weren’t enough.”

“You don’t happen to know when the next bus will come?” she asked.

By Sunday, the road out had become all but impassable. Artillery hit two buses packed with evacuees, wounding four people, including two children. A car with volunteer aid workers was also struck on the road. In the town, a Grad rocket sprayed a group waiting for buses with shrapnel, wounding eight.

Ukrainians have taken to calling Debaltseve a second battle of Ilovaisk, an event sometimes called the “Ilovaisk kettle,” after the disastrous envelopment of that city last summer by Russian-backed rebels and, Western officials say, by regular Russian Army troops.

Today, critics have attacked the military leadership for stumbling into another near encirclement.

The missteps were as much political as military, Semen Semenchenko, a member of Parliament and paramilitary leader, said in an interview, a day before he suffered a concussion in fighting in Debaltseve.

The Ukrainian Army neglected to reinforce the road because the plan was to trust the cease-fire, he said.

In particular, a combined European, Russian and Ukrainian military monitoring group, jointly led by a Russian general, had been regularly traveling the road, ostensibly diminishing the chances of an attack on it.

As it turned out, when the fighting started in Debaltseve in late January, the Russian general simply stopped making the trip, staying behind at a barracks for peacekeeping officials.

“The general staff had a political strategy” of trying to bolster the cease-fire, not a military strategy to defend the town, Mr. Semenchenko said. Not enough attention was paid to the flanks, he said, leaving the road exposed.

The Ministry of Emergency Situations in Ukraine says it is doing all it can to diminish the risks to civilians. The ministry said 956 people, including 161 children, were evacuated from Thursday to Saturday. The prewar population was about 10,000.

At the bus stop, all attention was focused on the battle for the road and the journey ahead for those waiting for minibuses out. “They shoot the buses,” one woman said, yelling.

Spread out along tiny checkpoints of concrete bunkers along the 31 miles of road, Ukrainian soldiers can do nothing now but brace for assaults — even as the minibuses of evacuees bump slowly past.

“In the mist, you cannot see the enemy,” Mr. Semenchenko said. “You just hear the incoming rockets.”

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