Despite a ceasefire announced two days ago, Ukranian army forces and separatist fighters are waging a battle just outside the strategic Eastern Ukrainian city of Deblatseve, in the village of Chernukhino.
As I exited the Jeep that dropped me off in Chernukhino, less than one kilometre from Deblatseve, a bullet from a sniper sailed overhead, forcing us to crouch lower. The city has become the most intense flashpoint in the War in the Donbass in Eastern Ukraine. Chernukhino has changed hands four times in recent weeks as separatist forces attempt to tighten the noose around Debaltseve, trapping 7,000 Ukrainian pro-Government fighters inside.
This is the third day of the internationally anticipated Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement, hailed as a triumph of international diplomacy. Imposed by people who have never visited the Donbass and have little understanding of the situation on the ground, the ceasefire has clearly proved ineffective.
Pro-Russian separatists assumed control of the town during the wave of anti-Kiev unrest in mid-April 2014, yet the town returned to government control in late July. Debaltseve has since become a stronghold for Ukraine government forces and a base of operations for anti-separatist offensives in the region.
Once an important railway hub in the heart of the Donbass, Debaltseve’s location between the two breakaway “republics” and its role as a nexus for anti-separatist operations by Ukrainian forces heightened the significance of this once unremarkable town. But now that rail services to the separatist regions have ceased and railway lines have been shelled and destroyed, its strategic significance has vanished and its significance is now largely symbolic.
In an attempt to regain control of the town, separatist forces from the south and the north undertook a pincer manoeuvre, declaring that they had succeeded in encircling the town and it’s 7,000 defenders during the week of February 9.
A few days earlier when I visited Chernukhino while embedded with the Kazaki National Guard, the village was still under Ukrainian control. Today, however, no Ukrainian forces remain in the village.
An intense and protracted artillery bombardment accompanied the encirclement. A column of smoke hung over the broken town for days.
During the siege by separatist forces, the humanitarian situation inside Debaltseve deteriorated to crisis levels, and much of the civilian population was evacuated. Death tolls are not yet known, but destruction nears total.
Separatist forces on all sides are currently attempting to storm the town. Areas around the outskirts have been infiltrated, notably by members of the renegade ‘Ghost Battalion’ in the north, and intense, building-to-building urban combat is underway as the separatists attempt so solidify their gains. All the while, the Ukrainian defenders of the town continue to repel further separatist advances.
Background on the conflict:
- Deblatseve was initially captured by LNR forces in mid-April 2014
- Deblatseve was recaptured by the Ukrainian Army in July 2014
- Minsk agreements were signed on February 15th 2015
- An estimated 7,000 Ukrainian Army troops were trapped in the city of Deblatseve as the Ghost Battalion and other LNR forces seem poised to take the city
- This morning Deblatseve was captured again by forces loyal to the separatists
The writer is embedded with Kazaki National Guard, part of the Lugansk People’s Republic Army. He has been writing for OpedSpace as part of a “Ukraine at War” series. More of his work can be found here.
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