Situation in 'Debaltseve pocket' worsens ahead of Ukraine peace talks in Minsk

By bne IntelliNews February 11, 2015

bne IntelliNews -

 

Ukrainian government forces trapped in the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve are suffering significant casualties, according to Ukraine's general staff. Debaltseve is the easternmost town held by Ukraine in the conflict-torn Donbas region, and is now surrounded by Russian-backed rebel forces following an encircling action.

The fate of the Debaltseve 'pocket' could determine the outcome of talks to be held later on February 11 in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, between the heads of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. Rebels believe capturing Debaltseve is crucial to the viability of the territories they control as an autonomous entity.

19 Ukrainian servicemen were killed and 78 injured on February 10 on the outskirts of Debaltseve as the result of rebel artillery attacks, spokesman for Ukraine's general staff, Vladyslav Selezniov, said on February 11. Selezniov added that rebels held in total 204 Ukrainian prisoners.

During the night of February 10, the Russian-backed artillery subjected Debaltseve to heavy shelling, the press centre of Ukraine's “anti-terrorist” military operation confirmed.

Rebels forces control both western exit roads from the town, and are believed to have mined them. The number of Ukrainian forces trapped in Debaltseve is not clear, but is believed to be over a thousand.

Before its encircling, Debaltseve comprised a Ukrainian salient into rebel-held territory. An important railway junction and crossroads, it has strategic significance for rebels seeking to strengthen connections between their strongholds in Luhansk and Donetsk, facilitate transport by rail of coal within rebel-held territory, and shorten the front line.

Ukraine is officially playing down the situation at Debaltseve, critics say, to avoid panic.

According to Semen Semenchenko, commander of the Donbas batallion of volunteer fighters and member of parliament, Ukraine's forces are sufficient to relieve Debaltseve, but there is a lack of political will.

“War does not like publicity, but in some cases it prevents the making of mistakes,” he wrote on Facebook on February 11. “I don't think that in the case of a disaster [at Debaltseve] the 'information vacuum cleaner' will manage to brainwash the population this time round. It is all too serious and everyone is too tired.”

As rebel forces completed their week-long encircling action around Debaltseve, pro-government media focused on a claimed Ukrainian advance near the Ukraine-held port and industrial centre of Mariupol. The advance was led by Ukraine's 'Azov' irregular volunteer brigade, with National Defence Council head Oleksandr Turchinov in attendance, according to reports.

Adding to tensions, a rocket attack that Ukraine blamed on the rebels killed up to 10 civilians in the Ukrainian-held town of Kramatorsk on February 10. Kramatorsk is the headquarters of Ukraine's so-called “Anti-Terrorist Operation” in East Ukraine, and around 60km from rebel-held Donetsk.

Minsk talks

Ironically, analysts see the flare-up in fighting as being triggered by peace talks to be held in Minsk on February 11, as both sides jostle for battlefield positions that could be frozen in a new demarcation line to be agreed in Minsk. The talks will be held in the 'Normandy' format, comprising the heads of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed on February 11 that he would attend, according to RIA Novosti, the last of the 'Normandy' leaders to confirm attendance. Diplomatic sources quoted by Reuters said that this meant the likelihood of an agreement was as high as 70%. “The president won't attend for nothing,” the source said, as quoted by Reuters.

Diplomatic sources quoted by the media have said the new peace agreement could include a 50-70km wide demilitarised zone on both sides of a demarcation line.

One major sticking point is seen to be the definition of a new demarcation line, compared to an original demarcation line as defined in the Minsk peace accords that were signed on September 5, which failed to end hostilities. Here the question of whether Debaltseve will be ceded to the rebels could make or break any deal, say analysts.

The other sticking point is control of the stretch of the Russia-Ukraine border that runs through rebel-held territory, allowing Russia to freely support rebels, according to Ukraine and the West. Russia denies backing the rebel forces.

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