Putin's War and His Little Green Men at Debaltseve, Ukraine, 2015
The Ukrainian Pocket at Debaltseve
The success at the Russian intervention in the Donetsk-Ilovaisk region embolded the Russian leader, Putin. The debacle of the Ukrainian Army in and around Iloviask was a direct result of Russian troops crossing the border and dramatically impacting the military balance, which prior to this, was in the Ukrainian favor. Their near win quickly turned into a disaster as they tried to save face.
By late July, 2014, the Ukrainians had seized this critical road and rail hub in the Donetsk region and after August, with the intervention of Russian troops on behalf of the DPA (pro-Russian) the fortunes of war changed for the Ukrainians as more territory was taken by pro-Russian and Russian forces. By January 2015, the DPA had manged to push the Ukrainians even further back around Debaltseve and this created a huge pocket of Ukrainian military forces nearly surrounded except for one main road leading towards the Ukrainian lines.
The DPA forces began their attacks without Russian units and over a period of a week, were too weak to cut the city off or take it. By January 25th, it was nearly cutoff. A stalemate set in and a period of artillery bombardment set in from the DPA and Russian units across the border. Inside this Ukrainian pocket were about 6000-8000 men. Most of them were from the 128th Mechanized brigade along with 50 tanks, 40 artillery guns, and 15 missile artillery. The Ukrainians were deployed in the following manner:
- 4700 in Debaltseve
- 1500 in Semhira and Troitske
- 2700 in Vuhelhirsk area
- 500 in Bulavinske-Nikishine area
- The 25th Airborne Brigade and 128th Mech. Brigade
- Elements of 17th Tank briagde (50 AFV)
- 20th, 34th, 42nd Brigade
- Elements of 55th Artillery
- Kyiv-2 ATO Battaliion, Donbas ATO
The Ukrainians could have simply withdrew from the city and save face, as the other side had around 15,000 troops. There was no more value to the holding the city unless they had plans to launch an attack from this bulge that stuck into enemy territory. They chose to stand and fight for the time being.
The massive artillery siege from both Russian and DPA artillery upon the area left much of it in ruin and the civilians fled and most were gone by the first week of February. While the siege was powerful, the Ukrainians still fought and resisted. Russian drones acted as artillery spotters for their missiles and guns. Ukrainian units had trouble with coordinating with other units due to Russian R-330ZH electronic jamming from the 18th Separate Brigade nearby. This proved critical as units could not plan defenses.
With the civilians gone, mostly Russian troops would be used to try to cutoff the Ukrainians from February 1st onward. These were:
- 18th and 8th Guards Brigade
- 25th Spetsnaz Battalion
- 5th Tank Brigade
- 27th Guards Brigade and 217th Guards Airborne Regiment
- 136th Guards Brigade
- 20th Guards Brigade
- 19th Brigade
- 13th Guards Tank Battalion
- 32nd Brigade
For artillery fire, the Russians had 288, 291, 385, 232 Missile brigades. So of the 15,000 or so troops opposing the Ukrainians, about, 9,000 of them were Russian.
On February 10, Russian forces attacked from both sides of the pocket shoulder and managed to reach the only road out of the pocket that led to the Ukrainian base at Artemivsk. By the 11th, the Ukrainians were isolated. The Russians then attacked with 100 tanks upon the pocket proper shrinking it further. Despite a ceasefire agreement on the 12th, Russian continued to attack all around the pocket.
The Ukrainians were desperate between the 13th-17th. Many units abandoned their weapons and fled or tried to escape through back roads since the main road was in Russian control.
Putin now ordered the kill. Russian forces again attack on the 17th. After a month of artillery bombardment and now low ammunition, the Ukrainians ordered a fighting withdrawal and by the 19th, 2500 man had escaped the hell. Still in Debaltseve were 4500 men. However, many of them simply fled to save themselves because on the 20th, Russian troops took the city.
Like at Ilovaisk, the agreed to withdrawal terms were not adhered to by Russian troops. The Ukrainians were to be allowed to leave unmolested, this was not the case as Russian troops continued to attack them along the agreed corridor.
The Ukrainians had lost 300 dead and 700 wounded. About 300 were captured. The Russians lost up to 100 men.
Royal United Services Institute: Russian Forces in Ukraine
Battle of Debaltseve, US Army Military Studies