Haggard Ukrainian Army soldiers withdrew 15 heavy artillery guns Friday, their armored convoy part of a delayed cease-fire agreement with Russian-backed separatists to ease a conflict that has taken nearly 6,000 lives.
With blue and yellow Ukrainian flags flying on an unseasonably warm day, the soldiers hauled their mud-splattered 100mm guns – some of them painted white for camouflage in snow – behind armored personnel carriers. Rebel forces also removed four Grad rocket launchers from front-line positions, the Associated Press reported, and have claimed other pullbacks in recent days.
But the fact that these first steps are being taken 12 days later than agreed – with rebel forces in the meantime capturing the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve – illustrates how separatist units that faced losses last summer have been transformed into a more capable force now making battlefield advances.
Ukrainian analysts, soldiers, and politicians say the conflict has changed dramatically in the past six months. Rebel forces have upped their prowess, supported extensively with Russian troops, hardware, and leadership, all of which Moscow denies providing. Ukrainian Army units, meanwhile, appear hamstrung by a cumbersome command and control structure, and less nimble at learning from their mistakes.
“The enemy became more sure of himself, and [is] making success by using all of our weak points, to make informed decisions and hit us very hard,” says Semen Semenchenko, a former pro-Ukraine militia commander who now holds a seat in parliament in Kiev.
Last July, rebel units were forced to withdraw from their stronghold in the town of Slaviansk, leaving behind a sour taste of criminal violence from undisciplined volunteers as pro-government troops pressed their advantage.
But a rebel victory at Ilovaisk in August, in which attacking Ukrainian troops were encircled in a complex operation and many killed, was the first sign of a turnaround. More government defeats followed, including the loss of Donetsk Airport in January and now the retreat from Debaltseve after months of fighting.
The fall of Debaltseve – with its critical rail juncture connecting the two pro-Russian, self-declared “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk – “was not a strategic loss, but more a loss of reputation, and for soldiers, they lost their morale,” says Mr. Semenchenko.
He is “furious” with those he says are inept military commanders chosen for loyalty above military competence. Debaltseve also put a dent “in the spirit of Ukrainian patriotism,” says Semenchenko.
“It was possible to see that our government was lying to people, because we could see what was on [pro-Ukraine] TV, but the reality was a different picture,” he says. “We need to turn it around.”
'No one wants to say the awful truth'
That view resonates with a Ukrainian artillery spotter in Kiev who survived the final days of battle at the Donetsk Airport, the last toehold for Ukrainian forces in the rebel-controlled city. Yevgeny Kovtun describes fierce, hand-to-hand combat against separatists with distinctive features and accents of Russia’s Caucasus regions – and says he killed one with a hand grenade.
Rebel successes are “logical,” and their forces “have become smarter, stronger,” says Mr. Kovtun, who is on leave after being twice wounded. He says rebels are “examining themselves” while fighting and learn from mistakes. But on the Ukrainian side, he argues, “only the soldiers are examining themselves, not our officers and commanders, and you can see the result.”
He said in the Donetsk Airport fight, command decisions were slow, and the soldiers felt they were on their own.
“It’s a complex system, it takes a lot of time to inform our commanders. And when we have no good news, no one wants to say the awful truth,” says Kovtun. He then adds, with intentional exaggeration: “We have 20 officers for one soldier in our Army; the enemy has one officer for 100 soldiers … who can make their own decisions.”
One key to rebel progress is the increasingly effective role of Russian troops and military gear on the Ukrainian side of the border, says military analyst Alexey Aristovich, speaking in Kiev. Russian training has been decisive, along with technical support and battlefield command.
Moscow denies providing such support, and claims that any Russian citizens or soldiers fighting alongside rebels in Ukraine are volunteers.
But also critical is the Ukrainian leadership, from President Petro Poroshenko on down, “who don’t create an environment for real professionals to participate in the war,” says Mr. Aristovich, a reserve officer himself who heads a nonprofit fund to help war veterans.
“In our politics, loyalty of forces [to certain politicians] is more important than winning the war,” says Aristovich. “At company level, they are not bad, but everything higher is quite a problem…. War should not be waged like this.”
A key cease-fire
The cease-fire agreed to in Minsk on Feb. 12 – which included Russian President Vladimir Putin, rebel chiefs, and the leaders of Germany, France, and Ukraine – was meant to be a first step to end the war. But many Ukrainians worry that the fall of Debaltseve, despite the cease-fire, may presage a rebel push into the port city of Mariupol, which would enable a closer link of rebel territories to Crimea, which Russia annexed last spring.
“There were several cease-fires and no result,” says Samara, a Ukrainian soldier in the convoy at Soledar who gave only his nickname.
“This one is something new because of the withdrawal of heavy weapons,” says Udav, another Ukrainian soldier with his blood type affixed to his uniform.
Like others on the convoy, they say they “don’t trust” Mr. Putin to ensure that the separatists will respect the cease-fire. They expect, they say, that the cease-fire will collapse and they will be ordered back to the front line.
But today’s withdrawal “is very important, because only if both sides fulfill the Minsk agreement can we find peace in eastern Ukraine,” says Lt. Col. Vladislav Seleznyov, a Ukrainian Army spokesman, as the withdrawing military convoy prepared to move on.
“Everybody is tired of this war,” says Seleznyov. “Civilians are tired, soldiers are tired … but if [the rebels] don’t follow Minsk agreement, the Ukrainian Army can reverse this withdrawal.”