The debacle in Debaltsevo
Posted by Charles II on February 16, 2015
As for Ukraine reporting, I think I’ll outsource further reporting to Moon of Alabama, who has been doing great work. His post (dated 2/18) on Debaltsevo is here. But there are some important questions to be asked in terms of understanding the reliability of sources and the likely direction of future activities, particularly:
1) When, and how tightly encircled was Debaltsevo?
2) Why did Kiev continue to hold Debaltsevo despite being informed that what had been a salient into rebel territory had become an isolated pocket?
3) What were Kiev’s losses?
The basic timeline is:
Feb. 11: Ceasefire talks convened, with especial concern about the situation at Debaltsevo.
Feb. 12: A ceasefire is announced. It is to begin on Feb. 14/15th at midnight.
Feb. 18: A massive exodus of Kiev troops from the town of Debaltsevo.
Feb. 19: The last fighting in Debaltsevo.
The question of how tightly encircled Debaltsevo was might seem to be an arcane one, but it goes to the heart of who is telling the truth about the Ukraine crisis. A good starting place for understanding this is Der Spiegel, since Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was the lead in the ceasefire talks. Nikolaus Blome, Matthias Gebauer, Christiane Hoffmann, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Christian Neef, René Pfister, Matthias Schepp, Christoph Schult and Holger Stark:
The problem has four syllables: Debaltseve.
Debaltseve is a small town in eastern Ukraine, held by 6,000 government troops, or perhaps 8,000…. It is the heart of an army that can only put 30,000 soldiers into the field [plus about 35,000 National Guard], a weak heart. Until Sunday of last week, that heart was largely encircled by pro-Russian separatists and the troops could only be supplied by way of highway M03. Then, Monday [Feb. 9th] came.
Separatist fighters began advancing across snowy fields towards the village of Lohvynove, a tiny settlement of 30 houses hugging the M03. The separatists stormed an army checkpoint and killed a few officers. They then dug in — and the heart of the Ukrainian army was surrounded.
The situation in Debaltseve plunged the Ukrainian army into a desperate, almost hopeless, position, as the negotiators in Minsk well knew [the loss of 8,000 men and their materiel would have been catastrophic]. Indeed, it was the reason the talks were so urgently necessary. Debaltseve was one of the reasons Merkel and Hollande launched their most recent diplomatic offensive nine days ago.
The low point of the Minsk negotiations was reached on Thursday [Feb. 12] morning…. The rebels no longer wanted to sign the closing document.
The separatists, not surprisingly, wanted to delay the beginning of the cease-fire for as long as possible so as to give themselves time to completely conquer Debaltseve. Poroshenko, too, seemed to prefer a delayed cease-fire — apparently not fully understanding the situation facing his military. The Europeans were trying to protect the Ukrainians from themselves.
Russia has likely already achieved its minimum goal, that of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO or the European Union. The deal agreed to in Minsk includes a kind of veto right for separatist areas in eastern Ukraine on important fundamental issues. That right would apply to membership in military alliances and to membership in economic blocks such as the EU or Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union [so, as long as the ceasefire holds, Russia has won its primary objective. The side with the motive to break the ceasefire at present is Washington].
The key point to notice is that re-supply to Debaltsevo was cut two days before the talks began.
And it’s not only Der Spiegel that confirmed the date of the seizure of Lohvynove (or Logvinovo as I have seen it written). This is what the Torygraph said on 14 February, before the ceasefire:
On Friday [Feb 13], a prominent Ukrainian commander, Semen Semenchenko, criticised official military spokesmen for pretending that the road was still open, saying his men had been forced to withdraw from a key hamlet. And the wounded in Artemivsk hospital had come from positions outside the pocket. “No one gets out of Debaltseve,” said one soldier who declined to give his name. “It has been closed for five or six days.”
Even the Kyiv Post admitted that Logvovino had been taken on Feb. 9.
But was the encirclement as tight as was claimed? Here is a pro-rebel claim dated February 10. It shows Debaltsevo encircled in an area approximately 2 x 2 mi. It claims Chernukhino (about 2 miles east of the crossing of M03 and M04) on the verge of collapse, Svetlodarsk (roughly eight miles to the northwest) heavily engaged and pockets formed around Ol’khovatke and Bulavyn’ske [however, as February 11th, this source indicates that Debaltsevo and Ol’kovatke are still connected]. By Feb. 11, Chernukhino (on the east edge of Debaltsevo is described as close quarters fighting.
But on February 18th, a week after this, with rebel claims of holding territory all around Debaltsevo and within about a mile of the city center, a substantial force managed to break out and rescue a number of vehicles. How many escaped? This rebel source claims 1200-1500 KIA and 500 wounded. Pravda quotes an unnamed rebel source as claiming 3,048 Kiev dead in the battle. This source suggests that 1 battalion’s worth of mechanized equipment made it out, with 5-7 battalions destroyed or captured. It lists 6 tanks, 26 BMP (infantry fighting vehicle) and MT-LB (armored tracked vehicle), 2 BTR-80 armored personnel carrier), 3 self-propelled howitzers, 4 command vehicles, one BM-21 Grad launcher, 2 UR-77 combat engineer vehicles, 5 BRDM-2 (recon vehicle), and a large number of trucks and wheeled vehicles as emerging from Debaltsevo on Feb. 18. You can see more here, via Vineyard of the Saker] But Kiev claims to have recovered 200 vehicles.
But (accepting the rebel estimate of the initial garrison) where are the missing 85% of the vehicles? While the rebels are proudly showing off their captured gear, there don’t seem to be many intact vehicles or heavy weapons. Lots of artillery shells and small supplies, a counter mortar radar, a Humvee… but not what one would expect from absolutely headlong flight. CNN shows photos of the situation in town immediately after capture, including one captured vehicle. The BBC quotes eyewitnesses as seeing dozens of tanks escaping. I’m guessing that more got out than what we saw arriving up the M03 highway. Thirty percent? Fifty percent?
In the pro-Kiev narrative, Debaltsevo was never cut off. Reuters, 2/16:
Military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said the town lies within territory under Ukrainian control in accordance with a ceasefire deal reached in Minsk last week.
The Ukrainian troops continue to deny that the road to the city is closed off, saying it was still possible to reach it, even though the road leading to it is under fire, and mined in many places.
As late as 2/18, Poroshenko was claiming that the retreat was an orderly one with almost no losses. France 24:
“Debaltseve was under our control, it was never encircled. Our troops and formations have left in an organised and planned manner,” he said in televised comments.
Poroshenko spoke at a Kiev airport as he traveled to eastern Ukraine to “shake hands” with the soldiers who were pulled out of Debaltseve.
He sought to portray the withdrawal as a tactical decision that “laid shame on Russia, which called on the Ukrainian troops yesterday to lay down arms, raise the white flag and surrender”.
Ukrainian troops “gave a blow in the teeth to those who were trying to encircle them”, he said.
The Kiev narrative-which was supported for many days by the western media– is simply delusional (it should be noted that some Kiev commanders were realistic from the beginning, but their views were not given an audience). The regular re-supply at Debaltsevo was interrupted no later than Feb. 9th. That meant it was no longer a salient, but an isolated pocket that could not have survived during a ceasefire. Now, had the Kiev military re-captured Logvovino before the ceasefire was signed, that would have been moot. But Poroshenko signed the agreement knowing–but denying that– Debaltsevo was isolated. Kiev and the western media seem to have tried to turn the battle for Debaltsevo into a reason for breaking the ceasefire.
For their part, the rebels I believe, overstated how tightly encircled the Debaltsevo garrison was. A good guess–and guess is all that it is– is that the garrison suffered about 30% killed, wounded, or captured–a terrible toll. But 70% probably survived unharmed, some by desertion and some in the bugout of Feb. 18th. Still, with control of the main road for eight full days, it should have been possible to seal the exits of Debaltsevo. I have seen a comment to the effect that the rebel forces magnanimously allowed the Kiev forces to escape: this is how bizarre the comments get. The troops who were interviewed said that they took heavy fire. The rebels tried to stop them from escaping. But they did not have the control of the area they claimed, and they’ll face what equipment did escape at some other time.
On the other side, Kiev is trying to claim that the rebels violated the ceasefire by taking Debaltsevo. This claim is about as laughable as the claim that the rebels stepped aside for the garrison to leave, no matter how much western media claims otherwise. Debaltsevo, as a salient, was incapable of withdrawing its heavy equipment from the line to the distance required by the ceasefire. Once they became an isolated pocket, they became incapable of withdrawing heavy equipment without entering disputed areas. Therefore, the only honorable solution would have been to surrender Debaltsevo. It had been occupied mostly to make miserable the lives of civilians by preventing coal from getting to rebel cities– that was apparently why it was such a must-have location as to risk the lives of a quarter of the regular army.
Are Russian troops engaged in combat in Eastern Ukraine? Are NATO troops (or contractors) engaged in combat? This is one area where I simply am not sure. There certainly seem to be Russian soldiers in Eastern Ukraine (I’m ignoring the “little green men” of Crimea, since those were clearly Russian military personnel already present in Crimea due to the Russian base). The rebel side includes former Ukrainian soldiers, so it’s not like they’re purely amateurs. Luhansk and Donetsk are so close to the Russian border that it’s entirely possible for Russian troops to engage Kiev’s troops withut even crossing the border–though it’s also widely reported that they have crossed the border. Reports of Russian materiel are often mistaken or ambiguous, but some–like those presented by Jane’s– seem credible. It’s hard to believe the rebels have equipped themselves so well simply by the spoils of war. While I believe that Russia has intervened in Ukraine–and condemn any such intervention– it seems to be on the same order of intervention that the US has had in places like El Salvador and Haiti. It’s small enough that we deny involvement, just as Russia denies its involvement in the Donbas.
There are no reports of NATO troops or contractors captured at Debaltsevo. There are some reports of western materiel–like the counter-mortar radars captured at Debaltsevo– but nothing like what one would expect in a true proxy war.
Now, the situation may change. But at present, we seem to be just shy of a proxy war.
Just as Debaltsevo seems to have been a debacle for Kiev, but not a disaster.
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