The Battle of Debaltseve: a Hybrid Army in a Classic Battle of Encirclement
By Randy Noorman
Around noon, on February 10th, 2015, a woman looks out of her apartment near Kramatorsk airfield in eastern Ukraine, when rockets start impacting the surrounding buildings. Though audibly scared by the explosions, she continues filming the barrage, which is aimed at the Ukrainian military headquarters located near the airfield. Situated at least 80 kilometersaway from the Frontline, the long range artillery barrage, conducted by heavy multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), is part of a large scale Russian backed separatist offensive to close the pocket around the small city of Debaltseve.
During the War in Donbas, in the midst of what has universally been labeled a “hybrid environment” and what the Ukrainian military itself called an “Anti-Terrorist Operation” or ATO, the actual fighting was highlighted and to a certain degree concluded, by a classic battle of encirclement. Although underneath the visible conventional layer, hybrid elements were present both in the form of the composite organization of the forces involved and the employment of certain non-linear elements like information warfare and special operations, functioning as a force multiplier for the separatist elements. Likewise, a number of sophisticated technologies and related procedures were employed to augment existing conventional tactical activities. Lasting from January 22th until February 18th, 2015, the battle that raged in and around the city of Debaltseve has only a few comparisons in scale and intensity in post-war European history, notably being Sarajevo and Grozny. While the estimated numbers regarding the forces involved vary greatly, it is safe to state that somewhere between 5.000 and 8.000 Ukrainian troops were deployed within the salient surrounding the city. The Russian backed separatist or “hybrid army” which was trying to envelop them, perhaps even numbering up to 19.000.
Nearly succumbing to the threat of complete encirclement and possible annihilation, Ukrainian units were ultimately forced into a headlong retreat. The withdrawal, however, soon degenerated into a rout when multiple retreating columns came under separatist attacks, suffering heavy casualties in the process. Although the fighting, lasting for nearly a month, was undoubtedly the largest engagement in the Donbas War, besides traditional friction, intentionally propagated disinformation has further complicated a reliable portrayal of events. Especially regarding the strength and composition of the forces embroiled, as Russia has consistently denied any form of military involvement. The aim of this article therefore is to shed some light on the Russian hybrid forces involved, while providing a vivid and, where possible, detailed description of the events as they unfolded.
Following the Russian annexation of Crimea (February/March 2014) and the subsequent insurrection in the Donbas region, the Ukrainian military slowly but steadily regained control over separatist self-proclaimed territory in Luhansk and Donets oblasts. Years of neglect had seriously undermined the combat capability of the regular Ukrainian army, which led to the emergence of numerous territorial- and volunteer battalions during the spring of 2014. Using whatever meager units available, they created blocking positions in order to prevent further spreading of Russian backed separatist forces throughout the area. Thereafter, focus was aimed at separating the separatist strongholds from the Russian border, in order to cutoff Russian support. However, this was deemed futile, to a large extend due to large-scale Russian cross-border artillery attacks inside Ukrainian territory, probably numbering up to hundreds of strikes over the course of 2014. Most notably the one near Zelenopillya, on July 11th, 2014, in which 122mm “Grad” rockets aimed at a Ukrainian column put a whole armored battalion out of action, killing dozens and wounding up to a hundred soldiers.
After various unsuccessful efforts to recapture the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, ATO forces shifted their center of gravity towards the area around Debaltseve. Attempting to separate the DPR and LPR forces from one another, Debaltseve was recaptured on July 29th. Thereafter ATO forces abandoned their envelopment efforts along the border and continued pushing eastwards from Debaltseve along Donets Ridge, further splitting the separatist territory in half. On August 24th, however, at least eight Russian Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG) and, in all likelihood, several Spetsnaz units unexpectedly crossed the border in a counteroffensive in support of the separatists, aimed towards the preservation of both breakaway republics. Presumably with even more formations assembling at the Russian side of the border. Ukrainian units who were in the midst of capturing the city of Ilovaisk, soon found themselves surrounded by strong Russian hybrid forces. After several days under relentless Russian artillery barrages, the Ukrainian commander was able to negotiate, what seemed to be a peaceful withdrawal, back towards Ukrainian held positions further to the west. On August 30th, however, about ten kilometers on their way out of the city, moving in a column of up to sixty vehicles, they ran into a well-prepared ambush, lasting for several kilometers. Separatists, backed up by strong regular Russian troops, almost entirely destroyed the Ukrainian column. Killing hundreds, perhaps even up to a 1.000 Ukrainian soldiers in the process, while capturing another 500. For the Ukrainian army it was the single deadliest encounter of the entire war. Confronted with this direct Russian intervention, ATO headquarters decided to go on to the defensive, while the Russian hybrid army consolidated its gains. Thereafter, during the fall of 2014, after signing the Minsk I agreement on September 5th, the Frontline more or less stabilized, with Ukrainian forces still firmly in control of the Debaltseve salient. While the number of Russian troops steadily increased, especially regarding ‘volunteers’ within the separatist ranks, actual combat involvement of regular Russian units diminished and for a large part moved to the rear. In late November hostilities again increased, when Russian backed separatists launched an assault against Ukrainian held Donetsk Airport, were fighting continued until January 21st, 2015. Thereafter, with the airport firmly in separatist hands, the Russian hybrid army’s offensive aimed at encircling the Debaltseve salient was unleashed.
At the time of the intervention, in August 2014, Russian troops inside Ukraine numbered somewhere between 3.500 and 6.500. With operations in all likelihood being directed from Russia’s Southern Military Districts headquarters in Rostov-on-Don. This number rose to almost 10.000 around the time of the Debaltseve operation. To generate this level of involvement, the Russian Ministry of Defense created a rotating system, in which units from all Russian military districts and almost every field army participated. Usually organized into BTGs, these were generally derived from a single division or brigade and deployed at the center of gravity, where they were used as shock troops alongside less trained separatist forces. BTGs usually consisted of motorized or mechanized infantry, tanks and dedicated artillery, occasionally reinforced by specialized units, depending on its mission. At the time of the Debaltseve operation, however, probably due to ongoing casualties and manpower shortage, tactical units originating from different regiments, brigades and divisions were often combined into mixed ad hoc company- or battalion level formations. Regular separatist formations were reinforced with so-called volunteers and supported by Russian military advisors, often with Spetsnaz operators or GRU operatives attached, especially for the conduct of reconnaissance and sabotage missions. Its field commanders, meanwhile, were incorporated into a command structure that was indirectly controlled by Russian staff officers on both the tactical and operational level, creating an appearance of separatist independence.
Besides maneuver units, substantial numbers of troops were stationed at the Russian side of the border, from where they provided logistical support, training and conducted cross-border artillery strikes in support of operations.Besides training and advising DPR/LPR militias and often leading them into combat, Russia also provided a large number of specialized military personnel, intended to operate complex weapon systems. A SNAR-10M1 battlefield surveillance radar was observed in and around Debaltseve during the fighting, to help locate the movement of Ukrainian units. Probably, the Russian Zoopark-1 counter battery radar was also used, in order to pinpoint Ukrainian artillery batteries. As well as a number of UAVs, like the Orlan-10, Forpost and Granat-1 and 2 used for reconnaissance and fire adjustment of artillery strikes. Likewise, typical for Russian military operations, a large complement of Electronic Warfare (EW) systems were deployed, potentially in combination with UAVs. Some of them were positioned in advance, monitoring alterations within the electromagnetic spectrum from the outset of operations. Others were used for jamming Ukrainian communications as well as detection, identification, direction- and location finding for the conduct of accurate artillery fire during combat operations.
At the beginning of the conflict a lot of Soviet legacy vehicles and weapon systems, like BM-21 Grads and Ukrainian build T-64 tanks, were smuggled into Ukraine, in order to provide the separatists with heavy weapons. Material the Ukrainians themselves were also using, as to help conceal the scope of Russian involvement. However, as the conflict progressed and equipment losses increased, more and more modern Russian military equipment found its way into the conflict zone. Their unit-markings usually painted over and often replaced with a white open square. Investigative journalism websites like “Bellingcat” and “Inform Napalm” attained considerable success in identifying Russian military hardware and personnel covertly being deployed into Eastern Ukraine.
Russia also fielded a number of paramilitary organizations as proxy forces, in order to supplement the ranks of the separatists with more experienced fighters. There were Russians, Cossacks, Chechens and even Serbians, among others. Notably, a unit of around 600 Cossacks played an important role in encircling Debaltseve and capturing the city. Another more well-known organization was the “Russian Orthodox Army,” which lost about 50 men during the fighting. Chechens volunteers were actually present on both sides of the conflict, with the “Vostok” battalion in support of the separatists, although not involved in the fighting near Debaltseve, while the pro-Ukrainian Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion actually participated in the defense of the city. Ukrainian security service SBU also identified over 200 mercenaries from Wagner PMC being involved in the fighting, its members suffering well over 50 casualties. Another Russian PMC called E.N.O.T. Corps, was presumably involved in supplying the separatists with weapons and equipment, while offering facilities for artillery and engineer training and instruction in the fields of intelligence and military planning. However, notwithstanding the scale and diversity of Russian military support, separatist forces probably bore the brunt of the regular day to day fighting. Militiamen, to a large degree Don-Cossacks themselves, although considerably strengthened by individual Russian volunteers and often led by actual Russian military commanders.
Ukrainian forces showed a mixture of regular army formations, supplemented by National Guard- and volunteer battalions, often showing a large disparity in levels of training and using a wide array of uniforms and equipment. The 128th mechanized mountain brigade was at the core of the Ukrainian forces in defense of Debaltseve and its battalions, 15th mountain and 21st mechanized, took up positions along the entire eastern part of the salient. Additionally, there were a number of mechanized, National Guard- and territorial defense battalions of mixed size, origin and quality, as well as independent artillery, reconnaissance and Spetsnaz formations. Most notably, the 40th “Kryvbas” mechanized volunteer battalion guarded the north-eastern perimeter, near the village of Novohryhorivka. The 25th “Kyivska Rus” mechanized infantry battalion, former Kiev territorial defense battalion, initially deployed at the eastern villages of Nikishyne and Ridkodub, but was active across the entire front over the course of the battle. Along with the well-known “Donbas” National Guard volunteer battalion. The latter being one of the largest volunteer battalions, veterans of the Battle of Ilovaisk and sometimes being referred to as the “little black men,” as opposed to the “little green men” deployed by Russia. According to ATO headquarters, the Russian hybrid forces around Debaltseve outnumbered Ukrainian forces by approximately 2:1 in infantry, 2:1 in armored fighting vehicles, especially in tanks and over 7:1 in artillery, howitzers, mortars and MLRS combined. Ukrainian units along the defense perimeter were therefore organized into strong points, mostly occupying essential terrain features and blocking possible avenues of advance, often supported by tank elements of both the 1st and 17th tank brigades.
After a 242-day siege, Russian backed separatists finally captured Donetsk Airport on January 21, killing or capturing the last of the “Cyborgs,” as the Russians came to call the Ukrainian defenders when referring to their perseverance and bravery. From January 22 onwards, Ukrainian units in defense of Debaltseve came under several small scale attacks, all of which were repelled. Their positions meanwhile, were being shelled by separatist artillery, to which Ukrainian artillery actively conducted counter-battery fire. At the same time, the Ukrainians observed several Russian armored columns and BTGs moving from the border towards the area around Debaltseve. The Russian hybrid army was concentrating its shock troops for the upcoming offensive. They were organized into two different strike groups, positioned north and south of the bottleneck, in order to close the bulge and trap the remaining Ukrainian units inside. The northeastern so-called “Brjankovska” group, was formed around the 4th “Batman” brigade, supported by elements of the “Prizrak” (Ghost) brigade, known to be the best fighting unit of both the DPR and LPR. While the southwestern “Horlivka” strike group was comprised out of the 3rd and so-called “Oplot” and “Kalmius” brigades. To hinder Ukrainian communications during the assault, a Russian R-330Zh “Zhitel” automated jamming station was deployed near Horlivka, probably belonging to 18th separate motor rifle brigade, 58th army and originating from Chechnya.
The village of Svetlodarsk, situated about 15 kilometers north-west of Debaltseve, was temporarily occupied by units belonging to the Horlivka group on January 24, threatening the M3 highway, serving as the logistical supply line from Artemivsk towards Debaltseve, that was soon dubbed “the road of life.” A Ukrainian counter-attack, however, managed to recapture the village. On January 25, the battle erupted in earnest, with separatists conducting massive artillery strikes against Ukrainian positions all along the defensive perimeter, using howitzers, Grad rocket, mortars and even tanks in a direct fire role. Nine kilometers north of Debaltseve, near the village of Sanzharivka, height 307.5 likewise played a crucial role in covering the M3 approach, this time from the north. Manning strong point “Valera” on top of the hill, was a platoon belonging to 15th battalion of the 128th brigade. Equipped with just two BMP-2s, a few heavy machine guns and several types of grenade launchers, they were reinforced with a single T-64 tank, belonging to the 17th brigade. Its ammunition seized from a separatists T-64 that was taken out in front of the position the day before. On January 25, the first in a series of attacks was launched against the strong point, when up to five separatist tanks assaulted the position, accompanied by, possibly Wagner, mercenary infantry.The defenders of Valera were able to repel the attack, destroying four out of five tanks in close combat and thereby preventing the separatist completing the encirclement from the north.
Over the course of the next few days the fighting around Debaltseve intensified, with separatist artillery regularly shelling Ukrainian positions. By January 27, Ukrainian intelligence had identified some five BTGs, three independent artillery groups are several smaller assault detachments. The Horlivka strike group alone assembled some 2000 men, supported by 22 tanks and 34 armored fighting vehicles. That same day they launched their initial assaults against Ukrainian defenses around the village of Vuhlehirsk, located at the western edge of the Debaltseve bridgehead, all of which were repulsed. To the north, near Sanzharivka, strong point Valera repelled another Wagner assault on January 28, destroying multiple tanks and other vehicles, as well as two KAMAZ-43269 “Dozor” or “Vystrel” armored personnel carriers, which were in use only with the army of the Russian Federation. Around the same time units belonging to Russia’s 200th motor rifle brigade were identified, also taking part in the repeated assaults against height 307.5, which was soon labeled the “meat grinder” by separatist troops. When on January 29, elements of the 128th Brigade repelled several major separatist assaults along its eastern perimeter, aimed against the villages of Chornukhyne, Ridkodub and Nikishyne, the Horlivka group renewed its advance towards Vuhlehirsk, a key position in defending the Debaltseve bulge against encirclement.
Early morning, after a preparatory artillery bombardment, elements of the 13th “Chernihov” battalion and “Svitiaz” special police unit defending the village, were attacked by strong armored units belonging to the 3rd and Oplot motorized rifle brigades. After several hours of hard fighting the Ukrainian defenders were forced to abandon their strong points and the Russian backed separatists were able to gain control over the town. Four separatist tanks together with several armored vehicles were destroyed by anti-tank mines and 13th battalions attached tank support. One of these was a T-72B1, which was not part of the Ukrainian tank inventory, taken out on top of strongpoint “Vovk.” In the following days, elements of the 25th Kyivska Rus battalion abandoned their positions around Nikishyne in the eastern sector, pulling back to join 1st battalion/30th brigade and the 2nd Donbas and 1st Kulchytskyi National Guard battalions in a series of counterattacks aimed to retake Vuhlehirsk. Violent clashes between Ukrainian and Russian tanks occurred, with Ukrainian reconnaissance units even managing to penetrate into the center of the town. Although ultimately the attack failed in recapturing the village, the rapid Ukrainian counterattacks, in close cooperation with artillery, did enable them to block any further separatist advance in the direction of Debaltseve. Meanwhile, with fighting closing in on the city, civilians started evacuating the city in large numbers, thereby risking the ongoing artillery shelling.
On February 1, in another attempt to close the corridor from the north, separatists again attacked several Ukrainian strongpoints. At “Sasha,” located on the southern outskirts of Troitske, approximately 100 separatist fighters managed to get into the rear of the Ukrainian position unseen. Assaulting at dawn, they initially managed to surprise the defenders, seizing one tank and clearing the dugouts with hand grenades. While the Ukrainian soldiers fought desperately to withstand the onslaught, a reserve formation of two T-64 tanks belonging to 3rd battalion-17th tank brigade, along with accompanying infantry, rushed to their aid. Dodging incoming RPGs as they approached the strongpoint, the tanks inflicted numerous casualties upon what turned out to be mercenaries and after expending much of their ammunition managed to repulse the attack. Near the village of Ridkodub, situated at the eastern part of the Frontline, Russian hybrid forces attacked strongpoint “Stanislav.” It was manned by a company of six tanks from17th tank brigade, of which only one was deemed operational, along with some infantry belonging to the 25th Kyivska Rus battalion. Nonetheless, they succeeded in holding their position. Destroying two T-64 tanks which were traced back to 7th motorized rifle brigade, coming from Russia’s Southern Military District. Further north, meanwhile, near Chernukhino, Isa Munayev, commander of the Chechen volunteer “Dudayev” battalion fighting alongside the Ukrainians, was killed while conducting a reconnaissance patrol.
Six days of continuous artillery shelling finally came to an end on February 2. The first phase of the battle of Debaltseve was over and with the Russian hybrid forces temporarily suspending offensive operations, the intensity of combat slowly but steadily decreased. Some of the regular Russian units who had been involved in the fighting over the previous days, were identified as the 8th Guards- and 18th Guards Motor-Rifle brigades, as well as 25th Spetsnaz regiment, all deriving from Russia’s Southern Military District. Along with 5th tank- and 83rd air assault brigade all the way from Eastern Military District, some of its personnel heaving distinct Asian features. The latter losing a Russian Orlan-10 drone above Debaltseve on February 3. That day a one-day-ceasefire was agreed upon between the separatist forces and the Ukrainian units, although around midday salvos of Grad rockets were again unleashed upon the city’s defenders. By that time an estimated 8.000 civilians had already fled the Debaltseve area. While Ukrainian forces kept separatist concentration areas under sustained artillery shelling, shortage of available combat troops forced them to maintain a static defensive posture. The Russians, meanwhile, continued pouring in fresh units and equipment, in preparation for the second phase of the battle.
The days directly following the short-lived ceasefire, overall combat activity around Debaltseve remained at a relatively low level, with the notable exception of a SU-25 “Frogfoot” ground-attack plane strafing Ukrainian positions. Separatists claimed deploying a SU-25 that was supposedly captured from the Ukrainian air force. ATO headquarters subsequently denied this, emphasizing the probability of a Russian airplane instead. Meanwhile, separatist forces continued regrouping, reinforcing and redistributing men and material for the upcoming renewal of the Debaltseve offensive.Multiple Russian hybrid tactical groups were again identified closing in on the city through Altsjevsk and Krasnyj Loetsj, positioning themselves on both sides of the salient. At the northern sector of the bottle neck, Cossack formations were replaced by combined tactical groups, containing both Russian soldiers and mercenaries. Despite separatist artillery shelling the M3 MSR on a daily basis, Ukrainian convoys continued bringing in supplies and ammunition and evacuate the wounded. Ukrainian artillery on the other hand regularly conducted pre-emptive strikes against separatist assembly areas, in order to hamper their preparations. A humanitarian corridor was temporarily created to enable the remaining civilians to escape the upcoming onslaught. Initial preparatory artillery bombardments beginning on February 8 finally, however, made an end to the brief lull in the fighting and signaled the upcoming renewal of the offensive.
On February 9, separatist assaults were again launched along the entire length of the Debaltseve salient. Ukrainian artillery batteries for their part inflicted considerable casualties, but only partly succeeded in delaying the advance. Early that morning a group of Russian mercenaries coming out of Vuhlehirsk managed to approach the M3, passing by the village of Kalynivka through a series of ravines and forested areas. Upon reaching the M3, they placed mines on the road, effectively cutting the MSR running from Debaltseve towards Artemivsk. Supported by elements of Russian 25th Spetsnaz regiment and 5th tank brigade, they continued their advance, capturing the crucial village of Lohvynovo, which had contained only one observation post manned by troops from 54th Ukrainian Intelligence Battalion. For the next six hours the Ukrainian high command failed to inform all of its units that the MSR was now blocked, resulting in numerous Ukrainian convoys being ambushed, losing several vehicles and dozens of men killed or captured. Ironically, 1st battalion/30th mechanized brigade had occupied a string of six strong defensive positions, covering all approaches from the area around Vuhlehirsk towards Lohvynovo, until they had been ordered to pull back the day just before the attack. When they were ordered to advance again twelve hours later in order to recapture Lohvynovo, the attack soon slackened, after two of their T-64s were destroyed by anti-tank missiles. With the M3 now closed to Ukrainian convoys, the high command ordered the establishment of Task Force “Bars” operating from Luhanske, with the mission of safely directing supply convoys along the country roads running parallel to the M3.
The following day the separatists launched the previously mentioned long range artillery strike against the Ukrainian headquarters at Kramatorsk airfield, resulting in 8 civilians and 4 Ukrainian soldiers killed and further wounding over 60 people. The strike was conducted by two BM-30 “Smerch” heavy MLRS positioned near Horlivka, using satellite navigation and geo-referencing technology to coordinate the strike. Although the separatists by now claimed to have surrounded the entire salient, Ukrainian high command maintained that the encirclement was not yet complete. In reality, however, whilst not entirely cut off, all of the roads leading in and out of the city were under continued and effective separatist artillery shelling. At the same time, at the eastern edge of the bulge, the attacks also continued. While the Ukrainians, after two weeks of heavy street fighting, were forced to abandon the village of Chornukhyne, Ukrainian Grad attacks inflicted heavy losses upon the Prizrak (Ghost) brigade. Several Ukrainian counterattacks were also undertaken in order to recapture Lohvynovo, all to no avail. It was not until the next day that the separatists were temporarily forced to abandon the village, due to ongoing Ukrainian artillery shelling, only to recapture it again the day after.
In the run-up towards the implementation of the Minsk II agreement on February 15 (signed on February 12), the Russian hybrid army’s offensive shifted into a higher gear. The fighting for the control of Lohvynovo continued, with Ukrainian units emanating from 24th, 30th and 92th brigades, 1st tank brigade, 79th airborne brigade as well as the Donbas battalion attacking from the north in force. The following tank clash, on February 12, resulted in Russia’s 5th tank brigade losing 8 of their T-72Bs, against 4 Ukrainian T-64BMs “Bulat” tanks. Despite this battlefield success, however, they were not able to press on the attack. Around the same time a Russian R-166-0.5 radio station was spotted inside Lohvynovo, which enabled its operators to establish a secure radio connection over distances between 500 and 1000 kilometers, possibly indicating command and control over the operation coming directly from Russia. That night, another 50 Russian tanks, together with 40 Grad, 9A52-4 “Tornado” and BM-27 “Uragan” MLRS crossed the Ukrainian border near Izvarino, farther raising the level of Russian involvement. Three days later a British pro-Russian journalist unintentionally disclosed the degree of Russian military presence, when he filmed a column of Russian T-72B3 tanks at the frontline near Debaltseve. Around the same time, northeast of the city, a sergeant from 25th battalion acting as a forward observer, famously managed to knock out a T-72B3, destroying it with a single shot of indirect fire, conducted by a Msta-B 152mm howitzer belonging the 55th artillery brigade.
With Russian forces increasingly incapable of replacing rising losses, different units were merged together and continued the attack, despite ongoing artillery shelling. On February 14 therefore, elements of the 136th Guards motor rifle brigade and 25th Spetsnaz regiment who had occupied Lohvynovo, were relieved by a combined formation from 27th Guards motor rifle brigade and 217th Guards airborne regiment. Nonetheless, apart from a couple of tracks running through open fields, the encirclement was maintained and while the Ukrainians were slowly beginning to prepare a withdrawal, some units already started to undertake small scale breakout attempts. The next day, while reporting on the fighting around Debaltseve, Russian media channel “Life News” unintentionally exposed the extent of Russian involvement even further by showing vehicles with clear markings belonging to 136th Guards motor rifle brigade, originating from Buynaksk in Russia’s Southern Military District.
As a result of the Russian hybrid army’s failure to fully achieve their objective of capturing Debaltseve before the Minsk II cease-fire agreement was to go into effect at midnight February 15th, they simply chose to ignore it. No longer regarding the surrounded city as part of the actual Frontline, but as an internal issue instead. That same day the remaining Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve received a mass text message on their cell phones, telling them that “they won’t be killed if they surrender.” Presumably emitted through the use of Russian “Leer-3” EW systems or possibly even portable transmitters, messages like these were regularly sent in order to destabilize Ukrainian defenses by means of demotivating their troops. Early morning next day started with massive artillery strikes all along the Frontline, leading to a record number totalling 101 artillery strikes on February 16th, including by a number of massive 203mm 2S7 “Pion” self-propelled guns. Ukrainians claimed that for every salvo they fired, they received 10 to 15 salvos in return. The Russians especially demonstrated their advanced Reconnaissance Fire Complex, culminating in an increased sensor-to-shooter capability. Effectively linking artillery to intelligence, resulting in precision targeting in near-real time through the employment of radars for conducting counter-battery fire, Electronic Warfare systems and especially UAVs. Accounts of Ukrainian soldiers being targeted by artillery, just seconds after being spotted by a UAV or after making use of their phones, were numerous over the course of the battle.
The area east of the M3, between Lohvynovo and Novohryhorivka, as well between Lozove en Kalynivka to its west, was now firmly in control of separatist forces. Although Ukrainian artillery succeeded in in destroying part of a rebel convoy, comprising around 30 tracked and wheeled vehicles, on its way from Alchevsk towards Debaltseve, the separatist advance continued relentlessly. South of Novohryhorivka and Nizhniy Lozove they captured a number of hills overlooking the last county roads leading out of the encirclement. With the Ukrainian troops finally surrendering the entire area around Chornukhyne, the eastern flank of the salient now also started to collapse completely. Around the same time, using massive artillery and tank support, separatist forces broke through around Verhulivka. From there they continued advancing towards the eastern city outskirts, entering Debaltseve and conquering its important railroad junction on the 17th.
Meanwhile, the likely sighting of a Russian general named Lentsov within the city of Debaltseve that day, raised yet more questions about the true depth of Russian military involvement. With two-thirds of the city swiftly under separatist control and heavy street fighting underway, several Ukrainian units now started to fall back in order to escape the encirclement. West of Debaltseve the 25th Kyivska Rus battalion in defenseof Komuna, was already close to getting overrun. While ATO headquarters was still in denial of the impending disaster, separatists claimed that by then it was no longer possible for Ukrainian troops to escape the pocket, without suffering considerable casualties. Rumors were even going around that the Kyivska Rus battalion had already requested a safe corridor out of the city. 40th Kryvbas battalion, being surrounded for almost two days while guarding the north-eastern perimeter, had lost two of its strongpoints called “Moisha” and “Kopie” that morning, with around 100 troops being captured in the process. Unable to evacuate their killed and wounded and ammunition running dangerously low, morale started to disintegrate. Around 50 men in defense of strongpoint “Zenith,” were able to successfully withdraw 20 kilometers on foot, finally reaching Luhanske at 04:40 early next morning. After that, only around 60 soldiers still remained at 40th Kryvbas battalion headquarters. Under the sound of distant artillery explosions, half of them were able to make it towards 128th brigade headquarters, located near Lohvynovo along the M3, where they joined in the retreat ordered by the 128th brigade’s commander that evening.
And thus began the controversial withdrawal, which according to official Ukrainian statements was planned in advance and generally executed in an orderly fashion. Those who were there, however, largely tell a different story about the events as they occurred. The plan, as it was explained afterwards, encompassed three different stages. Initially, 128th brigades most southeastern formations, deployed between Maloorivka and Orlovo-Ivanivka, were to fall back towards the city center. They were to be followed by the units positioned around Chornukhyne. Finally, the remainder of the troops in defense of the city itself, among whom presumably 13th battalion and the remnants of 40th battalion, would join in the retreat. During these phases, 128th brigades 15th battalion was to take the lead, with its 21st battalion together with elements of 30th brigade forming the rearguard. From there on, five different columns were to be organized, which in turn would withdraw from the encirclement by means of two different routes. Flanks protection was to be conducted by paratroopers belonging to the elite 95th Air Assault brigade and a combined Spetsnaz formation, with troops belonging to 3rd and 8th Special Purpose Regiments as well as 73rd Naval Special Purpose Center. Every available artillery piece was to be used to cover the movements along the pre-planned routes. The whole operation was planned to be executed between 18:00 on the 17th and 08:00 on the morning of the 18th. Supposedly, the order to withdraw was given to the appropriate commanders just a few hours in advance, although, due to failing communications, it did not reach all of the intended units, who nonetheless withdrew on their own initiative. According to the Ukrainian high command, however, Semen Semenchenko, the commander of the Donbas battalion, disclosed secret information concerning the routes chosen on his Facebook page, just hours before the withdrawal was to commence. Semenchenko, who was also a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, on his part accused the Ukrainian high command of gross incompetents regarding to what was about to happen.
One of those five columns was organized at the site of the 128th brigade’s headquarters near Lohvynovo, just after midnight, to where the remainder of 40th battalion had moved. It numbered around 100 vehicles and over a 1000 troops. Exhausted, low on supplies and confronted with superior enemy numbers, the troops set out around 03:00 as one of the last columns trying to escape the encirclement, while making use of the final hours of darkness. With control over a few secondary roads supposedly still disputed and open to Ukrainian units, Ukrainian artillery was doing its best cover the retreat and counter further separatist attacks. In the middle of the night, in minus twenty degrees Celsius and total black-out conditions while maintaining strict radio silence, the column began moving back towards Debaltseve, in order to link up with other remaining Ukrainian units around the southern edge of Novohryhorivka. After the link up the column continued north, passing through between Novohryhorivka and Lohvynovo, passing Nyzhnje towards Mironivskiy and Luhanske and from there onwards towards Artemivsk. Ukrainian paratroopers and special forces had meanwhile taken possession of a number of heights north of Lohvynovo, to enable them to cover the retreating columns. The separatists, however soon became aware of their presence and engaged them from the high-rise buildings. The column itself soon started to come under repeated attack, by both indirect and direct fire, gradually claiming its toll on the weary troops. Around 07:30 that morning, they stumbled into an enemy tank platoon which had taken up position on a ridge line ahead. The tanks started firing straight into the convoy of trucks, some of whom quickly left the column out into the open fields, in order to present a smaller target. While 128th brigade’s remaining BMPs and T-64s did their best to protect the trucks, some of them were destroyed by enemy fire, while others broke down or got stuck, sentencing those on board to a certain death or capture by the enemy. Around a dozen wounded and many more killed were left behind, while the survivors tried to make it to safety across a final 500 meters of open ground, with artillery shells exploding all around them. It was just a small part of the scenery that was looking alike in every direction.
As to the other columns, those who left first initially managed to escape the enemy encirclement relatively unscratched, only to come under increasing attack when daylight arose. Regarding those who were last to withdraw, they presumably did not fare much better as compared to the 128th brigade’s column as described above. At least one of the other columns took the more northerly route, leaving Novohryhorivka in the direction of Troitske.Some of the initial larger columns probably disintegrated under the relentless assaults into smaller detachments, each trying to find their way out of the inferno. One of these smaller groupings, also formed by elements of the 128th brigade, consisted of twelve vehicles, of which only one made it through back to Ukrainian lines. According to one witness, his company, belonging to 13th battalion and probably as one of the last units to depart, reached Artemivsk during the afternoon on February 18, with only 45 out of its original complement of 150 men left. A member of 25th battalion stated that only 14 out of a total of 100 in his unit survived the ordeal. Some reports even went as far by stating that only about 150 of 128th brigade’s original complement of 2000 troops were ultimately able to reach Artemivsk alive.Strayed groups and individual stragglers, however, raised these numbers back to a higher degree over the days directly following the withdrawal. Soldiers without compasses or maps simply had to follow the abandoned vehicles for directions. Nonetheless, decimated units, bringing with them all kinds of heavy equipment, as well as individual vehicles, most of them damaged by incoming fire, streamed into Artemivsk all day during February 18 and continued well into the day after. The whole range of Soviet legacy vehicles was passing by, some of them being pulled, others managing on their own power. Ambulances drove on and off in order to transport the many wounded towards the nearby hospitals. Meanwhile, soldiers everywhere were expressing their discontent about the way ATO headquarters had executed the operation.
By February 19th, the Russian hybrid army was firmly in control of the city of Debaltseve. One tactical group, containing both tanks and armored vehicles, continued to advance towards Luhanske, but was halted by Ukrainian artillery fire.Around the same time the ATO spokesman declared the redeployment of Ukrainian forces towards a new defensive line to be almost completed. The Battle of Debaltseve was nearing its end and with it came time to reflect on what had occurred. There was widespread criticism among the Ukrainian troops regarding their military leadership and the manner in which it had conducted the operations. Semen Semenchenko, together with commanders of other Ukrainian “right wing” volunteer units, even went as far as to announce their intentions of establishing their own military headquarters, parallel to the official General Staff. Despite the fact that the Minsk II agreement did not put an end to the fighting as a whole and the Battle of Debaltseve did not end the war, it did turn out to be the last major offensive, at least until the present day. Although the conflict has continued ever since, the city has remained in separatist hands, with combat operations across the Donbas degenerating into what one American colonel described as fighting “World War One with technology.”
Several separatist videos made during the aftermath of the fighting showed Debaltseve and the surrounding area devastated by artillery, littered with dead bodies and burned-out wreckages. Some of them with their turrets completely blown off, as well as numerous Ukrainian armored vehicles, trucks, lots of ammunition and other military hardware left behind damaged or intact. Sources would soon start to contradict each other in no small amount as to how many of the troops actually made it out alive. Those who managed to reach Artemivsk repeatedly spoke of hundreds of dead, with many more troops, dead and alive, supposedly having been left behind. Ukrainian President Poroshenko contradicted this during the afternoon on February 18th, declaring that 128th brigade, elements of 30th brigade, 25th and 40th battalions as well as National Guard units, together forming 80% of the troops involved, all had left Debaltseve intact. He spoke of a “planned and orderly withdrawal,” officially suffering 136 killed and 331 wounded over the course of the battle (January 27th to February 18th), not including volunteer battalions. By evening a total of 2.475 troops had supposedly withdrawn from Debaltseve, together with 200 pieces of military hardware. According to the separatists, however, Ukrainian losses numbered well up to 3.000 killed or captured and many more wounded, with a large portion of Ukrainian armor and equipment abandoned or destroyed. According to a United Nations situation report dated February 27th, approximately 17.000 civilians had fled the city, from a pre-war population numbering 25.000 inhabitants. Around 2.000 refugees returned to Debaltseve within a week after the fighting had ended. When the smoke lifted, over 500 bodies, most of them civilians, were discovered within the ruined buildings. With the survivors in dire need of almost every basic need, the new rebel authorities provided for the initial requirements, while humanitarian assistance increased soon after hostilities were over.
Although ATO headquarters maintained the relatively low casualty rate, the local morgue in Artemivsk received dozens of bodies over the course of the day. Soldiers belonging to Ukrainian the 44th artillery brigade covering the retreat stated that; “they were packing huge artillery trucks full of dead bodies.” Western journalists witnessing the Ukrainian troops streaming back into Artemivsk, likewise raised their doubts regarding the Ukrainian headquarters version of events. According to the reconnaissance commander belonging to the 25th Kyivska Rus battalion, estimated Ukrainian losses must have been somewhere between 400-500 men killed, against approximately 2900 separatists. Two weeks later Ukrainian authorities reluctantly confirmed the transfer of another 50 bodies, from soldiers who had died in the defense of Debaltseve. According to a report containing material assembled by the former Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, at least 70 active duty Russian servicemen had been killed in action during the battle, not counting volunteers, mercenaries and proxies.
In conclusion, it seems highly likely that Ukrainian casualty numbers lay much higher than officially admitted, while on the other hand separatists losses probably significantly exceeded those of Ukraine. This outcome, although undoubtedly a Ukrainian defeat, at least made it a Pyrrhic victory for the Russian hybrid army. Despite these losses, however, Russian intervention was very effective in a number of ways. Over the course of the battle, as well as during the Donbas War as a whole, Russia demonstrated its innovative methods for increasing the combat capabilities of the separatist forces, while continuously, though increasingly unsuccessfully, denying Russian military involvement. First by raising the number of available combatants, while at the same time improving their war fighting capabilities, mainly through the integration of highly trained Russian military personnel and the transfer of sophisticated weapons systems. Secondly by effectively integrating state-of-the-art technologies into regular tactical activities and the employment of traditional Russian military characteristics like the emphases on massive firepower. All in all, although occasionally resembling to siege warfare, the battle had displayed a hybrid army, using a variety of methods, executing a classical battle of encirclement.
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It was a big surprize for me…
It was a big surprize for me -- a Ukraine Army veteran who defended city of Debaltseve in December 2014 - February 2015 -- to find this article by the Dutch historian Randy Noorman of this website Small Wars Journal. Five years passes since that battle, and it looked like people forgot about that brutal Russian military invasion episode. I didn't expect that historians are still interested in it. By the way, thank you, Mr. Noorman for quoting my multiple blog posts among 145 sources you used for writing this piece! I appreciate it.
Some facts are incorrect in your article (because the English-language sources you used published info available at that time). For example, about who used the combat support jet SU-25 in Debaltseve in early February. First, separatists claimed that it was their jet (stolen). But later, one of the the Ukrainian Army commanders who fought there, confessed in an article that it was the Ukrainian jet on the recoinassance mission to reveal enemy's (Russian) anti-aircraft capabilities in the area and radio jamming stations. To confuse, the jet dropped one bomb on the neutral field between the Ukrainian and separatist positions -- for both to see this.