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A city caught in a vice What we know about the new epicenter of fighting in eastern Ukraine

Source: Meduza
Photo: Petr Shelomovskiy / Demotix / Corbis / All Over Press

For several days, the city of Debaltseve, located in the Donetsk region, has been the epicenter of fighting in eastern Ukraine. Separatists have tried to surround a Ukrainian army group there by creating “pocket” to cut off its retreat. Information from the battlefield, as always in such circumstances, has been highly inconsistent. Meduza tries to determine what we know currently about the situation in Debaltseve. 

What we know

Debaltseve is high-value

The city is located approximately 75 kilometers (about 47 miles) from Donetsk. It is a major railway junction that has both strategic and psychological significance for each side of the conflict. It’s strategic because Ukrainian forces have already penetrated deep into rebel territory in Debaltseve’s direction (see map). Gaining control of the city would allow the separatists to realign the front. Capturing Debaltseve also has psychological importance after Ukrainian forces emerged victorious from heavy fighting there last summer.

The possible pocket

Because Ukrainian troops have penetrated deep into rebel territory in order to take Debaltseve, separatists might be able to cut off their retreat by forming a pocket around the area. To do this, they’d need to block all roads leading west from the city. The main road runs 47 kilometers (29 miles) through Svitlodarsk to Artemivsk. It’s precisely here, along this highway, that the separatists have struck hardest, including an alleged attack by a Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft on a convoy of trucks and armored vehicles. Separatists’ efforts to close the pocket began in earnest in late January and continue to this day. So far, Ukrainian troops have managed to maintain control over the territory.

A city in critical condition

There were 45,000 people living in Debaltseve before hostilities broke out. No one knows how many people remain now; most likely, everyone who could leave has gone. The evacations to the west continue, however. As recently as January 31, buses operated by civilian volunteers carried away 243 people. In the last few days, civilians have regularly come under fire, forced to hide in their cellars for safety. Debaltseve has been without electricity for two weeks, and water and heating utilities also stopped working, despite subfreezing temperatures at night. Stores, cafes, and schools are all closed. Humanitarian aid from Russia, moreover, doesn’t reach any territory under Ukrainian control.

What we don’t know

The condition of Debaltseve’s defenders

In late January, separatists started increasing their pressure on the city, capturing several nearby towns. Rebels also spread rumors that they’d already surrounded Debaltseve completely, though Kiev denies this. Meduza’s sources indicate that the city remains in Ukrainian hands, with western supply lines intact. How long Kiev’s forces can hold Debaltseve, however, and if they can withdraw if it becomes necessary, remains unknown.

Photo: Petr Shelomovskiy / Demotix / Corbis / All Over Press

Troop strength

Separatists say there are roughly 8,000-10,000 Ukrainian soldiers in Debaltseve, though Kiev refuses to reveal precise numbers. It’s also unknown how many men make up the rebels’ operation. Circumstantial estimates can be made based on casualty figures. On the first two days of February, Kiev reported 20 soldiers killed in action, and another several dozen injured.

What’s next?

Attempts to renew peace talks in Minsk collapsed over the weekend, meaning that fighting could continue. Separatists have shelled Debaltseve daily without interruption, though their long-term plans for the city remain unknown. Just last week, for instance, it seemed Mariupol would become the war’s new epicenter, after Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko announced an offensive in that direction. Fighting there has stopped, however, as the bulk of separatists’ forces have been deployed to Debaltseve.