Added 3/7/15, a counterclaim on the deaths in Debaltsevo from Oksana Grytsenko, Kiev Post:]
In Debaltseve alone, up to 7,000 soldiers escaped death in the encirclement.
Only when you read the story, about how traumatized those who escaped were, it doesn’t ring true.
I have been skeptical of rebel claims of a near-annihilation of the troops at Debaltsevo. But the Kiev Post published this account of a sergeant who was just outside of the combat area, in Popasna. Olena Goncharova:
Although Kostyantyn Zubov was not in Debaltseve when his fellow servicemen were leaving the town under enemy fire, he was just 18 kilometers away in Popasna, and saw the soldiers who had just left the trap on Feb. 18. They were headed to Artemivsk, some 46 kilometers away.
“This was not a planned exit. Crushed and shredded into pieces, they had seen how their comrades died,” this is how Zubov describes the soldiers who exited Debaltseve.
He said Ukrainian artillery gave them very little support, the flanks were not covered. “They (commandment) rounded up (thousands of) people in the trap. They were shot point blank. I don’t know if it was because of uselessness of the commandment and what sort of maps they have there, and in whose interest this all was,” Zubov says.
He says that despite President Petro Poroshenko’s claim that he had given the order for the army to exit Debaltseve, the order was actually not given from above. It was a decision taken by commanders in the field on the night of Feb. 17.
Zubov’s recollection is different, though: “They lied. It was a defection as the soldiers have left everything – ammunition, their belongings, equipment.”
There is also a major communication problem in the army, he says. “There was a large group of (Russian) troops there in Debaltseve,” Zubov said. “And there was no proper interaction among our units, because of Russian electronic countermeasures. The defense wasn’t planned either.
The army is also very poorly equipped, the sergeant complains. “Supplies are at zero level. The uniforms are useless, poorly made, the die goes bad very quickly, it tears up and it’s cold. It’s has a semblance of a foreign uniform, but the quality is poor,” Zubov says.
This is consistent with the latest report from the pro-rebel site, Colonel Cassad:
The overall number of the junta’s KIA in the fighting for Debalcevo and the adjacent areas were up to 1500, 900-1100 more KIA the junta lost in the fighting near Logvinovo, Nizhnyaya Lozovaya, Sanzharkovka, Dolomitnoye, Mironovka, Krasnyi Pakhar, and Troitskoye. Overall, according to the preliminary data, the junta lost up to 2400-2600 KIA and MIA in the battle for the Debalcevo wedge (perhaps the number of KIA is somewhat lower, because some of them may still roam somewhere in the area of the former Debalcevo cauldron), about 4500 WIA, up to 650 POW.
I guess we can be grateful that 5,000 men were not killed [just wounded or captured. The rebel claim amounts to nearly a 100% casualty/capture rate, which is why I have been skeptical].
I guess we should be worried whether Sergeant Zubov is correct that these were primarily Russian troops that spearheaded the assault. If there are Russian troops in significant numbers, there will be long-term consequences, probably including the re-armament of Europe and the renewal of the Cold War.
Novaya Gazeta has an interview with a Russian soldier who participated in the fight at Debaltsevo. One can translate this. It sounds like he volunteered under pressure. The article doesn’t yet seem to be available in English (see here for Novaya Gazeta in English). I have seen enough of this sort of evidence so that, when added to the extraordinary effectiveness of the rebel troops, it seems likely that there is significant Russian involvement in Ukraine.
The reason that this is an important story is that, just as Russia cannot accept a NATO state on its border, the west probably cannot accept the seizure of a major country by military force. Mariupol is essential to the Ukrainian economy, accounting for an amazing proportion of its industrial output. If Russian troops advance on Mariupol, I could easily see NATO positioning troops–perhaps equipped with tactical nuclear weapons– in Ukraine. I can certainly see Germany and France deciding to re-arm. In other words, the calculus that Russia has used so far for creating a buffer zone in eastern Ukraine starts to turn the other way should the conquest start to look like the full annexation of Ukraine.
This is not a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong. The U.S. is clearly wrong for meddling in the Yanukovych situation. It wasn’t prepared to back the new (coup) government with the $100B or so that is needed to get it out of the woods. It wasn’t prepared to send in troops immediately to signal a determination not to allow Russia to meddle in Ukraine’s affairs. So, the best course would have been to let Ukraine stay under loose Russian control and let the Russians deal with its intractable debt. If they annexed it, they would be seen as the bad guys. Instead, we gave guns to extremists who then went and committed war crimes in the east. Sounds a lot like Iraq our response to the “Sunni rising.”
And Russia was wrong to send in troops. Even “volunteers.” Although several million Ukrainians do support Russian intervention, tens of millions find it frightening. Granted, they’re not frightened enough to clean up the corruption and put together an effective army, but this is normal. Probably a lot of Iraqis wish they had done something more before ISIS became such a problem. I hear reports that genuine terrorists have found the chaos of eastern Ukraine an ideal ground for weapons transfers, human smuggling, and other criminal activity. I don’t know if they are true, but that’s what happened in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan. What better place for criminal activity than a war zone?
Neither the Americans nor the Russians care enough about the Ukrainian people to make themselves their stewards. The Russians would have been wise to let the west fumble around in Ukraine until the Ukrainian people as a whole made a decision that they were safer allied with the Russians. The Americans would have been wise to let Russia continue to control the Ukrainian government until the mess collapsed of its own weight. But of course America has the same problem as Russia: it is run by unaccountable power, and that power has become corrupt as unaccountable power inevitably does.
All of these consequences–the re-arming of Europe, the introduction of tactical nuclear weapons into the confrontation, and the continued immiseration of all of Ukraine–do not depend on who is right and who is wrong, but emerge simply as the logical consequence of the interests and actions of the participants.