Poroshenko announces orderly evacuation from Debaltseve, while Ukrainian soldiers reported breaking out on foot.

Soldiers leaving Debaltseve. Photograph by Anastasia Stanko

Soldiers leaving Debaltseve. Photograph by Anastasia Stanko

(Updated 18.2.2015 at 1300h London time)

President Poroshenko spoke before the cameras on 18 February at Boryspil airport in Kyiv before flying off to the front near Debaltseve. He announced that 80% of all the forces in Debaltseve have been evacuated, with only two more units to come out. He claimed there had been no encirclement, the army units were evacuated in an orderly manner, and that they brought with them their military equipment, including tanks, vehicles and heavy artillery.

Poroshenko further charged separatist and Russian forces with refusing to allow OSCE monitors into Debaltseve so that they could not attest to the readiness of the Ukrainian armed forces there to withdraw their heavy artillery, as agreed under the new Minsk accords. He went on to say that the successful evacuation demonstrated the battle readiness of the armed forces, who had refused to surrender, but had given their opponents “a kick in the teeth” before getting out. A new front line has been established further to the west.

Earlier, in the morning of the same day the following report was published by Hromadske (Community Television)

Ukrainian soldiers are leaving Debaltseve. The news was reported by journalist Anastasia Stanko, working for Hromadske Television. The troops started leaving at six in the morning. A lot of them are leaving the town on foot along the road to Artemivsk, where they are being picked up by other Ukrainian units.

All of the departing units fought their way out, with their scouts breaking the path for them. Members of the Kryvbas battalion say they haven’t eaten for five days. They were surrounded in Novohryhorivka and were under constant mortar fire. According to them the village “was wiped off the face of the earth”.

…..According to these fighters not all Ukrainian formations have been able to get out of Debaltseve.

Attention has focused for days on the encirclement of several thousand Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve. How could this happen? Who is responsible for allowing it to happen, and why has there been no adequate response or effort to back up the encircled soldiers?

On Tuesday 17 February Semen Semenchenko, Donbas battalion commander and elected parliamentary deputy made an urgent appeal to President Poroshenko to take decisive action to break the encirclement:

The situation in Debaltseve has deteriorated seriously in the past several hours. That which could have been done yesterday can no longer be done today. Any further delay in taking decisive action will prove very costly. Just by maintaining our current positions we won’t achieve our aims, but rather we could come into catastrophe. I cannot for a number of reasons, above all reasons of a military nature, enter into a public discussion about the real balance of forces. I don’t want to conduct an information war with the General Staff and demonstrate who is misinforming society and the Commander-in-Chief (Poroshenko). This is not the time for this, its time to join our forces.

As (Donbas) battalion commander, People’s Deputy and first deputy speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on National Security and Defense I demand decisive action to break the blockade around the ATO forces in the Debaltseve district and to straighten out the front line.

… I appeal to the Commander-in-Chief and ask him to adopt immediately a decision to strike A POWERFUL COUNTER-BLOW against the Russian-terrorist armies, to lead out the encircled forces and to straighten out the front line. The main thing is to preserve the core fighting units. We are ready to implement any order. We will not allow any panic, but the time has come to act.

On the same day the deputy head of the President’s Administration Valeriy Chaliy promised vaguely that there would be “a precise and active” response on Wednesday to the separatists’ violations of the cease fire. Chaliy as was reported to say that the separatist and Russian fighters were trying to prevent the withdrawal of troops planned for 17 February from the front. If he was being reported accurately Chaliy could have been signalling Poroshenko’s readiness to withdraw the Ukrainian forces from Debaltseve, as opposed to a counteroffensive.

According to Dmytro Tymchuk the separatists are concentrating their forces and armour overwhelmingly onto Debaltseve. Ukrainian forces there have been been unable to break out or be supplied from without for six days – i.e. since the day the Minsk II accords were signed.

It would appear that Ukrainian leaders made a big blunder by believing that the separatists and their Russian backers would stop in their tracks and not keep pressing on this strategic transport and communications hub, which they had almost completely encircled already by 13 February. Or that somehow Poroshenko could successfully bring Western diplomatic pressure to bear on Putin to get the separatists to stand down. It quickly became obvious that wouldn’t work.

The separatists of the DNR and LNR are not restrained by either of the agreements they signed in Minsk. Aleksandr Zakharchenko stated the day after the Minsk II agreement that his republic seeks complete independence. He also threatens to widen the war in the direction on Kharkiv.

Although Debaltseve is not mentioned in the Minsk II agreement, it was one of the most bitterly disputed and unresolved issues at the talks. Putin told his interlocutors in Minsk he was fully informed about the situation at Debaltseve; and then at a press conference in Budapest on 17 February he urged Ukrainian leaders “not to prevent the soldiers in the Ukrainian armed forces from laying down their arms”.

In the coming hours and days attention will be focused on assessing the evacuation Poroshenko announced at the airport today: what have been the fatalities and casualties in and around Debaltseve; how many troops have left and how many were taken prisoner; and how much of their still intact weapons and equipment did they manage to bring out with them. And what impact do these developments have on securing or scuttling the ceasefire, the planned withdrawal of heavy artillery from the front and the exchange of prisoners of war.