Location Ukraine Ukraine

Ukrainian Soldiers’ Retreat From Eastern Town Raises Doubt for Truce

ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine — Ukrainian soldiers were forced to fight their way out of the embattled town of Debaltseve in the early hours of Wednesday, casting further doubt on the credibility of a days-old cease-fire and eroding the promise of ending a war in Europe that has killed more than 5,000 people.
It was unclear Wednesday how many of the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers trapped in the eastern Ukrainian town had survived the hellish retreat under enemy fire and avoided capture. President Petro O. Poroshenko put the figure at 80 percent, but since the Ukrainian military has never commented on its troop strength, the final accounting may never be known.
By midday on Wednesday, as limping and exhausted soldiers began showing up in Ukraine-held territory, it became clear that the Ukrainian forces had suffered major losses, both in equipment and human life.

“Many trucks left, and only a few arrived,” said one soldier, who offered only his rank, sergeant, and first name, Volodomyr, as he knelt on the sidewalk smoking. “A third of us made it, at most.”

President Petro O. Poroshenko talked to a soldier in Artemivsk. CreditPool photo by Mikhail Palinchak

President Petro O. Poroshenko talked to a soldier in Artemivsk. CreditPool photo by Mikhail Palinchak

The political fallout was as uncertain as the military situation. Mr. Poroshenko sought to cast the retreat in a positive light, saying in a televised statement that he had ordered the troops out of Debaltseve, a strategic transportation hub where intense fighting raged in recent days despite a cease-fire agreement signed last week in Minsk, Belarus.
Yet, his decision to fight for several days before retreating, and his earlier refusal to hand over the town during the cease-fire talks even when a Ukrainian defeat seemed inevitable, could prove contentious in Ukraine as the scale of the potential slaughter comes into focus.
“It was clear they couldn’t get a deal on Debaltseve,” Samuel Charap, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said of the Minsk talks. “The question then becomes: What the hell was Poroshenko thinking?”
The brazen disregard for the cease-fire on the part of the Russian-backed separatists also called into question the future of the Minsk agreement and the standing of two of its primary sponsors, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President François Hollande of France, who once again proved powerless to stop President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia from achieving his objectives in defiance of Europe’s wishes.
Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said that Secretary of State John Kerry had on Wednesday urged Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, “to stop Russian and separatist attacks on Ukrainian positions in Debaltseve and other violations of the cease-fire.”
In Brussels on Wednesday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said the group “stands ready to take appropriate action in case the fighting and other negative developments in violation of the Minsk agreements continue.”

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Mr. Putin, speaking on Tuesday in Hungary about the fate of Ukraine in Debaltseve, said that it was always tough to lose. “But life is life,” he said. “It just goes on. No need to dwell on it.”
Given Russian backing for the rebels in Debaltseve, including troops and advanced weaponry, “the question was when, not if, it fell,” said Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University and an expert in Russian security matters. “It is just too strategic a communications hub for Donetsk and Luhansk, and a weakness in the rebel defensive line, for Moscow or the rebel leaderships to pass up.”
If there was a shred of good news for Mr. Poroshenko, it was that by avoiding capture, the soldiers who made it out also avoided handing the rebels a powerful bargaining chip. But from the harrowing accounts of survivors of the retreat, that success was purchased at a terrible price.
A rebel assault that began within hours of the signing of the Minsk accord intensified on Tuesday with attacks by tanks and well-equipped infantry that quickly left most of the town under separatist control.
The order to retreat was kept secret until the last minute, and soldiers were told to prepare in 10 minutes and pile into the beds of troop transport trucks, according to Albert Sardaryen, 22, a medic who made the journey.
Unbeknown to them, preparations had been underway for days, as the military leadership searched for a means of escape other than the main road out of town, which was mined and controlled by the rebels. After sending ambulances over farmers’ fields and down back roads without attracting notice, they had their route.
Russian-backed rebels launched rockets Wednesday at government troops in eastern Ukraine. CreditAndrey Borodulin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The trucks lined up on the edge of town around 1 a.m., Mr. Sardaryen said, while tanks and tracked vehicles formed lines on either side of the convoy to try to shield the soldiers. The column of trucks, carrying more than 2,000 men, Ukrainian officials later said, kept their headlights off to make them harder to spot.
Despite the precautions, the column came under attack almost immediately, Mr. Sardaryen said, and trucks started breaking down and colliding in the dark. By dawn, the column was strung out on the plain and taking fire from all sides.
“They were shooting with tanks, rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles,” and firing at the disintegrating column with rockets, he said. Dead and wounded soldiers were left on the snowy fields because there were too many of them to carry once the trucks were hit.
“We stabilized them, applied tourniquets, gave them painkillers and tried to put them in a place with better cover,” Mr. Sardaryen said of the wounded.
Later, a Ukrainian unit from outside the encirclement drove in to try to retrieve the wounded, he said.
Mr. Sardaryen said he ran for the final four miles or so. Many of the soldiers who made it out also did so on foot, though some trucks made it all the way through, he said.
President Petro O. Poroshenko talked to a soldier in Artemivsk. CreditPool photo by Mikhail Palinchak
Oleksandr I. Bogunov, an army private, said the order had come to carry only what would be useful for the fight on the way out, and to leave all other ammunition and weaponry behind.
It remained unclear how many troops were stationed in the town. Mr. Poroshenko’s assertion that 80 percent had escaped in a column of a little over 2,000 soldiers would seem to indicate total troop strength of less than 3,000.
What did seem certain was that Mr. Poroshenko would face tough questioning in the days ahead. Though the cease-fire agreement was reached on Thursday, it did not formally take effect until Sunday.
The leaders provided no real explanation of the decision to delay its implementation for about 60 hours.
Mr. Poroshenko has said that he was willing to accept an immediate halt in the fighting, and that the delay was at Russia’s insistence. That seemed to be a reflection of the advantageous position of separatist fighters on the ground in the battle for Debaltseve.
In any event, the delay provided a window for fierce and bloody combat, and when the cease-fire did take effect, it produced only a brief lull in the fighting.
Bodies of Ukrainian soldiers killed in Debaltseve. Intense fighting has raged in recent days.CreditOleksandr Klymenko/Reuters
Mr. Poroshenko spoke by telephone on Wednesday with Ms. Merkel and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. about the continued fighting and the setback for the Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine had asked its Western partners to apply diplomatic pressure to encourage the pro-Russian separatists to observe the cease-fire in Debaltseve, and to allow access for monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Talks on the issue among the organization, Russia and Ukraine ended without results around 9 p.m. Tuesday, and the order for the retreat came four hours later.
Mr. Poroshenko urged the United Nations Security Council to prevent further breaches by Russia and the separatists.
In a statement, the Ukrainian presidential administration said that Mr. Poroshenko and Ms. Merkel condemned the cease-fire violations in Debaltseve.
While most analysts and European leaders urged patience to give the truce a chance to take hold after Debaltseve, the hard truth was that Ukraine and the rest of Europe were once again at the mercy of Mr. Putin and his proxies in eastern Ukraine.
“The real question is whether now that they have Debaltseve, the rebels and Russia are willing to sit back and let the conflict freeze, or whether they continue their town-by-town push while still proclaiming their support for the cease-fire,” Professor Galeotti said.
Referring to two other contested areas of eastern Ukraine, he said, “They could head for Avdiivka, or redouble their efforts on Mariupol, but I suspect Moscow will want now to settle back, at least for a while, and let Western attention wander.”
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Artemivsk, and David M. Herszenhorn from Moscow. Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting from Moscow, and Michael R. Gordon from Washington.
By http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/world/europe/ukraine-conflict-debaltseve.html?smid=tw-share&_r=4

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