AVDIYIVKA, Ukraine — The diplomats in Munich proclaimed another cease-fire in Russia’s war against eastern Ukraine would start on Feb. 20, but the Kremlin-backed side kept on fighting — and Ukrainian soldiers kept on fighting back.
In the first 24 hours alone, Ukrainian positions were fired and shelled upon at least 74 times, according to Ukraine’s military, and new engagements of small arms were recorded all across the front lines, 700 and more kilometers southeast of Kyiv, from the outskirts of Mariupol outskirts to the suburbs of Donetsk to the so-called Svitlodarsk rim, near the fallen city of Debaltseve and further to Luhansk Oblast.
While Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense spokesperson claimed that overnight into Feb. 20 the Russian-backed militants had abstained from engaging heavy weaponry, the very next day 122-mm caliber heavy artillery had been unleashed by militants. According to Ukraine’s military press center, army positions near the front-line village of Kamenka, west of embattled Avdiyivka, came under seven hours of shelling — the worst in many months. At least 30 soldiers and civilians have been killed in the last month of fighting alone.
Ukraine blames the failed cease-fire — one of a countless number of false flags of peace in the three-year-old war — on the Russian proxy troops. Consequently, there’s no reason to pull troops from battle positions.
Moreover, on Feb. 22, the militants used Grad-P multiple-launch missile systems, as well as 82 mm and 120 mm mortars, against Ukrainian positions in the government-controlled village of Vodyane, southeast of Avdiyivka.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry on Feb. 21 published statistics on the third anniversary of Russian military aggression: At least 9,800 people killed more than 23,000 wounded in the Donbas war. The invasion of Russian forces and the collaborators have devastated the industrial region of Donbas and turned 1.3 million people into refugees, Ukrainian diplomats said.
Avdiyivka, a city of 22,000 only a few kilometers from Kremlin-controlled Donetsk, remains the area of highest military tension. The industrial city, home to a large coke plant that powers Ukraine’s steel mills and employs many in the city, is the scene of some of the war’s worst fighting.
Russian side showing ‘no mercy’
One of Avdiyivka’s principal bastions is the so-called Butovka coal mine, situated in clear and flat steppe south of the city. With its long months of unprecedented defense by Ukrainian forces, Butovka has also become a symbol of stubborn Ukrainian resistance to the Russian-sponsored invasion.
The mine, which had been producing coal for almost 100 years, now is laid waste. Months of relentless artillery shelling and dozens of attacks by enemy infantry supported by armored vehicles have left bullet and splinter holes in its walls and metal construction. On Jan. 31, during the peak of the recent escalation in Avdiyivka, the positions at Butovka were put under shelling that left the buildings as heaps of concrete ruins.
There, amid snow and debris, a handful of Ukrainian soldiers and officers defend this strategically important point for Avdiyivka.
“Even metal here cannot withstand what people can,” one Ukrainian soldier joked bitterly. “Sometimes, we ourselves wonder how we stay alive here for more than three hours.”
Another soldier said: “When the war ends, all of us here would love to arrange an open-air museum. This terrible destruction would show the people what a power and might stands against us. The Russian military knows no mercy and no moderation in violence, especially when it knows it is more powerful than its enemy.”
He shows the rusty railway lines for coal transportation, virtually crumpled in the snow after the massive shelling. “Try to imagine a hellish explosive power that bends steel railway tracks…” he says.
Soldier Anatoly Lutsenko said: “The shelling starts several times a day, and we all run for cover. And 90 percent of our time is spent like this – we do our household duties and hide in trench shelters.” Lutsenko is now serving his combat duty west of the Butovka mine, at a place called the King’s Hunt, a pre-war luxury camp in the forest close to the Avdiyivka industrial zone.
The buildings of the former popular resort have been pounded to debris by massive shelling. During breaks in the shelling, Ukrainian soldiers busy themselves with camp tasks – cooking, stockpiling wood, repairing and fueling their power generators.
“When night comes, the real hell starts. By dusk, all the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observers, foreign delegations, politicians leave the city, and all of us keep both eyes open. The biggest bloodbath is done then,” Lutsenko said.
Ukraine’s 72nd mechanized brigade, which is now defending Avdiyivka, has lost killed at least 10 of its servicemen in the last month alone.
One of those killed in action was Leonid Dergach, a medical university lecturer and lawyer turned soldier and finally a company commander, who had won great respect from his subordinates. Several of his frontline friends left their combat units for a day to attend his funeral on Independence Square in Kyiv.