The scenes from the railway hub Debaltseve — with Ukrainian soldiers facing fire even as they withdrew over frozen fields — were a stunning reminder of the region’s instability less than week after the announcement of another cease-fire bid.
The deal had quieted fighting elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, but sparked battles for control of Debaltseve as a prize for both sides.
Separatists aligned with Moscow see Debaltseve as an important transport link between its self-declared breakaway regions.
Ukraine’s Western-backed government sought to hold Debaltseve as a key military foothold.
Thousands of Ukrainian troops had been hanging on in the town for months, but their supply lines had been largely cut after pro-Russian rebels nearly encircled them.
The withdrawal was a heavy political blow to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has staked his office on reuniting Ukraine and quelling Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
At least one militia leader turned politician called for the head of Ukraine’s military to be charged criminally for the defeat.
“This morning the Armed Forces of Ukraine, together with the National Guard, began an operation for the planned and orderly withdrawal of troops from Debaltseve,” Poroshenko said at the Kiev airport before flying to the front lines, where he planned to convene his top security advisers.
He said that 80 percent of the troops there had already pulled out.
The continued bloodshed raises the stakes about the international response to the crisis.
The White House has said it will decide whether to ship weapons to Ukraine partially on the outcome of the cease-fire deal.
The European Union, meanwhile, has threatened more sanctions against Russia — a possibility raised again Wednesday by a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The West has accused Russia of sending troops and weapons to aid the rebels, which oppose the Western-looking policies of Ukraine’s leadership.
Russia has strongly denied the claims.
“This is a massive violation of the truce that has been in effect since Sunday,” her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in Berlin.
Underlining the stakes, Merkel, Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Francois Hollande planned to speak by telephone later Wednesday.
A Ukrainian military spokesman said that there was no immediate information about the number of dead and wounded in Debaltseve.
A rebel spokesman claimed that they had killed thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, the Interfax news agency reported.
Separatist also have reported taking hundreds of soldiers captive, but claimed on both sides are often wildly exaggerated.
An estimated 5,000 Ukrainian troops have been trapped inside the town for a week — a significant portion of Ukraine’s battle-ready soldiers.
Debaltseve’s fate was the biggest stumbling block in marathon cease-fire negotiations last week.
The accord left the town’s fate unresolved, with both sides claiming it for themselves.
Ukrainian leaders have pointed to the battle as a reason why the West should still send weaponry to its army, despite the peace deal.
Putin said Tuesday that Ukraine should simply accept that it had been defeated there.
Officials who were briefed on the cease-fire negotiations said that a major sticking point had been whether Ukrainian soldiers could retreat from Debaltseve while keeping their weapons and equipment.
The army has suffered punishing shortages in basic supplies, such as blankets and ammunition.
On Wednesday, many of the retreating soldiers retained their own rifles, and many were perched on tanks and armored personnel carriers toward Artemivsk, about 25 miles northwest of Debaltseve.
Poroshenko said that they had been able to retreat with their equipment.
A military spokesman, Colonel Andriy Lysenko, later said that they had destroyed any equipment they could bring along.
Debaltseve has deep strategic significance, both for the rebels and for the Ukrainians.
A key railway crossroads, it connects eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland to Russia.
Under rebel control, it can strengthen the economic position of break-away territories.
The apparent defeat was also a powerful signal that rebels still have the strength to menace Ukrainian-held territory.
Buses, armored personnel carriers, at least one tank and dozens of other improvised ambulances brought in wounded soldiers to the hospital, where blood-soaked stretchers were piled outside the main entrance.
“We should have done it earlier,” said a low-level Ukrainian officer, Vladimir Makarenko, 39, who was sitting Wednesday in a green military radio communications truck and said he had arrived in Debaltseve in late December.
“The base camp was fine, but at the front line there was never enough.”
If the rebels push farther than Debaltseve, he said, “it will be World War III.”
During the retreat, “they shot at us the whole time,” said one soldier, who gave only his nickname, Maryak, which means sailor.
An officer, who refused to give his name because some of his men were still trapped in Debaltseve, said “a lot of people managed to escape.”
“But on a scale of one to 10, this has been 100” in terms of fighting in the encircled town over the last few days, he said.
In a sign of the political cauldron that awaits Poroshenko following the pullout, one of his coalition allies in parliament called for criminal charges to be lodged against Ukraine’s military leadership.
“There were enough forces and equipment. The problem is coordination and command,” Semen Semenchenko, who is also a volunteer militia commander, wrote on Facebook.
“The head of the General Staff should be brought to liability. Period.”
The pullout followed days of intense battles as rebels tightened their grip around the town.
At some points, the fighting spilled into the streets, shifting block by block.
“The Debaltseve boiling pot is closed,” Luhansk rebel leader Igor Plotnitsky said.
“It is Ukraine who cannot, and does not want to, recognize this.”
Russia has routinely denied direct involvement in the conflict.
On Tuesday, Putin pointed a finger in the opposite direction.
Asked during a visit to Hungary how Russia would respond to a U.S. shipment of lethal arms to Ukraine, Putin said that “these weapons are available now.”
He also said that no matter what weapons were introduced into the conflict, “the number of victims can certainly increase.”
The Obama administration has said that no decision has been made to send lethal aid to Ukraine.
A spokesman for the National Security Council said in Washington on Tuesday that the policy on not sending such aid was still intact and that the administration had “no idea what Putin is referring to.”
Source: The Washington Post