Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko confirmed Wednesday that loyalist forces were withdrawing from Debaltseve, marking the abandonment of a strategic rail and road junction to pro-Russian separatist forces.
Ukraine has lost a battle, but not the war – that was Poroshenko’s message to his troops Wednesday as the Ukrainian leader ordered a pullout from the strategic eastern city of Debaltseve.
The Ukrainian troop retreat from the railway hub between the separatist capitals of Luhansk and Donetsk was confirmed by FRANCE 24’s Romeo Langlois, reporting from the region.
“For the Ukrainians, it’s a time of retreat. We’re seeing a number of armored vehicles, some of them pockmarked by shell holes, heading toward Artemisk [a town west of Debaltseve]. In the other direction, there are military ambulances on their way to the warzone to try to evacuate the wounded,” said Langlois, reporting from the road between Debaltseve and Artemisk.
Ukrainian soldiers retreating from Debaltseve described a “living hell,” according to Langlois. Despite a ceasefire deal negotiated in Minsk last week, separatist rebels redoubled their efforts earlier this week to take the town, which straddles the line of withdrawal.
The fall of this town of 25,000 people, according to the pre-war statistics, marks another success for pro-Russian rebels and has left the Minsk ceasefire deal in tatters. Pro-Russian separatists consider Debaltseve as part of “their” territory for several strategic reasons.
1. Keeping the Ukrainian military at bay
Debaltseve is located about halfway between Donetsk and Luhansk, the two “capitals” of the pro-Russian separatists. By pushing away the Ukrainian troops, rebels are trying to avert a possible offensive against their soft underbelly. Taking Debaltseve also ensures the territorial continuity of the area controlled by the separatists and thus strengthens their claim to a form of independence from Kiev.
2. To ensure the economic viability of the separatist area
Debaltseve is a crucial rail and road junction. The control of this road and rail hub is essential for the separatists if they want to eventually boost the economy of the region. The financial aspect of the conflict is less dramatic but equally important for the actors. In Minsk, the Russian delegation insisted that Kiev restore financial transfers to areas controlled by separatists in order to ensure that Moscow does not end up with another bankrupt region under its charge.
3. Imposing a symbolic defeat on Kiev
Poroshenko was elected in May 2014, two months after Russia seized control of Crimea without a single shot fired. The trauma of losing Crimea explains the will of the Ukrainian leader to fight tooth and nail for every inch of territory. The fall of Debaltseve, less than a month after that of Donetsk airport, shows that the separatists can overcome loyalist resistance, fierce as it is.
4. Bringing the Ukrainian army to its knees
On Wednesday, Poroshenko said he had flown to the front to oversee the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Debaltseve. According to him, 80% of Ukrainian forces have already left the enclave. In what appeared to be face-saving comments, he denied claims by the rebels that Ukrainian troops were surrounded. “Debaltseve was under our control, it was never encircled. Our troops and formations have left in an organized and planned manner,” he said in televised comments.
Poroshenko also denied reports that hundreds of soldiers had been captured and maintained that Ukrainian troops were leaving the area in formation with their weapons and ammunition.
Reporting from the road between Debaltseve and Artemisk though, FRANCE 24’s Langlois described a “retreat under the bombs.”
The orderliness of this retreat is especially important for Ukrainian forces since the official version is that losing Debaltseve does not mark the end of the war. After taking control of the railway junction and Donetsk airport, separatist forces could quickly deploy their forces to the largest port city in the region, Mariupol.