24 Feb 2015

From ceasefire to retreat: 10 days on Ukraine’s front line

Seven days ago, fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine was running down ahead of the Minsk ceasefire. One week on, Debaltseve has fallen and Kiev is humiliated.

13 February: ceasefire ‘will take a lot of effort’

A day before the truce agreed in Minsk comes into effect, reports say tanks and missile systems are still crossing into eastern Ukraine from Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel says of the ceasefire: “We are very aware that it will take a lot of effort.”

Read more: Alex Thomson meets the residents of Debaltseve forced to dig for scraps of food.

And Alex Thomson, in eastern Ukraine, warns that a “grim land grab” is underway “because both parties believe it’s written into the deal… that whatever they have, they hold come midnight on Saturday night”.

But some light amid the gloom: a Lenin statue in Donetsk, painted in the colours of the Ukraine flag –

14 February: the clock ticks down to midnight

Ukraine military spokesman Andriy Lysenko confirms stories of a pre-truce land-grab. “Rebels are trying to complete tactically important plans to enlarge the territory under their control,” he tells Channel 4 News.

But civilian life in Donetsk goes on. On Valentine’s day, a bride and her bridesmaids pose for snaps outside the theatre. Inside, meanwhile, a Saturday matinee performance begins – only to be cancelled after mortar rounds land nearby, killing two civilians.

Ukrainian soldiers play football on the road to Debaltseve (Getty Images)

Ukrainian soldiers play football oustide Debaltseve (Getty Images)

15 February: a strange kind of ceasefire

The Ukrainian government announces that the ceasefire is being “generally observed” and that, despite “localised” incidents, there have been no fatalities since midnight.

Alex Thomson, outside the disputed town of Debaltseve, says: “All is not yet quiet on the eastern front by any means – but it’s quieter than it’s been for some weeks” (see film below).

The big question, though, is whether Debaltseve is part of the truce. Senior rebel commander Eduard Basurin tells Channel 4 News: “Of course we can open fire (on Debaltseve). It is our territory. The territory is internal. Ours. And internal is internal.”

16 February: a 21st century mini-Stalingrad

The devastation of Donetsk airport – an architectural showpiece rebuilt for the 2012 European championships – has come to symbolise what has happened in eastern Ukraine (see film below).

The battle to win and hold the main terminal and its surroundings is the ultimate pyrrhic victory, says Alex Thomson: “Blood, death, destruction, to win and hold an airport which no longer exists.”

Rebel troops guide him across the ruins, pointing out the dead bodies of Ukrainian soldiers, their wrists tied with flex. But is it a propaganda trick? “As ever in this war, what you see depends on where you are.”

In pictures - Ukraine's ruined showpiece

17 February: ‘His legs were on the ground. Unattached’

In modern warfare, civilians are often as much the victims as fighting troops. Yuri Koryagin was on the phone to his mother when there was “a white, blinding flash”. When he came to, he noticed his legs were lying on the ground – unattached to him.

Now he lies in a hospital bed in Horlivka, not far from Debaltseve. NHS surgeon Dr Michael Roesch, working at Hospital 2 in the city, tells Alex Thomson: “We have been completely overwhelmed here. The hospital simply isn’t equipped for this level of trauma surgery.”

Ukrainian soldiers on a tank as they leave Debaltseve (Reuters)

Ukrainian soldiers on a tank as they leave Debaltseve (Reuters)

18 February: ‘We said goodbye to our lives 100 times’

The strategic hub of Debaltseve is taken by pro-Russian rebels. The town had already been surrounded, allowing Russia to claim that it was not part of the Minsk ceasefire deal.

Alex Thomson tweets that “Ukrainian soldiers are coming out of Debaltseve with stories that mean just one thing: defeat.” He speaks to one who tells him: “We were praying all the time and said goodbye to our lives 100 times. (The Russians) had really good and heavy artillery.”

And the bottom line is that this is a major humiliation, not just for Ukraine, but also for the country’s military and political backers in Europe and the United States.

FactCheck: have pro-Russian separatists broken the ceasefire?

19 February: Debaltseve ‘demands western response’

Both sides are taking stock after the crucial battle for Debaltseve. Pro-Russian rebels are speaking of 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed. Alex Thomson blogs that developments in eastern Ukraine this week demand some kind of political or military response from the west.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose domestic standing will have been enhanced by the events of the past week, phones his counterparts in Ukraine, France and Germany to say he abides by, and believes in, the Minsk ceasefire.

But on the ground, the feeling among troops and civilians is one of resentment and resignation. One pro-Russian tells Channel 4 News: “Ukraine should be wiped out!” By contrast, a defeated Ukrainian troop observes that the rebels “were shelling almost the entire town (of Debaltseve)… They did this constantly for three weeks.”

20 February: digging for pasta in the debris

It has been at the centre of intense fighting between the Ukrainian military and separatist rebels, but now a more human, tragic story is unfolding on the streets of Debaltseve, blogs Alex Thomson.

Take just one, whose name in Russian means “Hope”. In the freezing pitiless winter, at 75, she is bowed by age, on her knees, scrabbling with bare, filthy hands into the dirt to retrieve pasta sprinkled on the ground by the chaotic Ukrainian retreat.

She tells us her husband has died, she has children in Russia, but she is alone and desperate and confused.

Meanwhile, Kiev accuses Russia of sending more tanks and troops into eastern Ukraine and says they are heading towards the rebel-held town of Novoazovsk on the southern coast, expanding their presence on what could be the next battlefront.

Russia does not immediately respond to the accusation which, if confirmed, would go further to kill off the European-brokered truce that was met by relentless rebel advances after it came into force six days ago.

21 February: shelling in Donetsk

Kiev accuses separatists of building up forces and weapons in Ukraine’s south east, and says it is braced for the possibility of a rebel attack on Mariupol.

Nevertheless, rebel leaders say they have signed a document detailing a plan for the withdrawal of heavy weapons, as required by the Minsk agreement – a sign they may be prepared to halt their advance after seizing Debaltseve.

But Alex Thomson reporting that artillery fire can still be heard in Donetsk.

22 February: what ceasefire?

Alex Thomson hears the sound of shelling east of the southern port of Mariupol, and there are reports of fighting around Horlivka, north of Donetsk.

Blogging from Debaltseve, he writes: “The sound of incoming shells and Grads around the Donetsk suburbs has never really let up in a week of ‘ceasefire’. Equally rebels are pressing forward north of the wrecked Donetsk Airport towards Pesky.

“So let us be clear: in at least three zones there is not and never has been any ceasefire worth the name.”

23 February: is Mariupol the next front in the war?

The war has come south. The prize? Mariupol, whose steelworks must surely be one of the biggest industrial plants on earth, blogs Alex Thomson.

He writes: “Other guns now point west too these days. Unlike this statue, they are not silent. We hear the booming of their shells as we pause at the edge of Mariupol. Out here in the countryside we see the churning tracks of tanks that came this way from the east, heading west. Very recently.

“The border with Russia is mile or two distant. The war has come south. To the shores of the Sea of Azov where the life-guards’ hut stands in the blue and yellow Ukrainian colours beneath dark blue and cloudless skies and golden inviting sands.”