Russian soldiers and pro-Russian separatists continue to shell in strategically important Debaltseve, Ukraine, despite an official ceasefire between Ukraine and Russia set to begin at midnight on February 15. In response, the European Union (EU) passed new sanctions and admitted Russia sent forces to east Ukraine.
Officials claimed the ceasefire was mostly working despite the battle continuing to rage in eastern Ukraine. Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), said Debaltseve “belongs to the separatists and that the cease-fire doesn’t apply there.” Over 8,000 Ukrainian troops still hold the city, but the rebels surround the city on three sides. From Reuters:
Reuters reporters near the front said Debaltseve was being relentlessly bombarded with artillery. At least six tanks as well as armored personnel carriers and artillery could be seen in woods near Vuhlehirsk, 10 km (six miles) west of Debaltseve, which the rebels captured a week ago.
“You can hear there is no ceasefire,” said Scorpion, a rebel fighter. “Debaltseve is our land. And we will take Debaltseve.”
Ukraine officials claim the rebels shelled the army over 100 times since the peace agreement started.
“The pre-condition for withdrawal of heavy weapons is fulfilling Point One of the Minsk agreements – the ceasefire,” seethed military spokesman Andriy Lysenko. “One hundred and twelve attacks are not an indicator of a ceasefire. At the moment we are not ready to withdraw heavy weapons.”
The Russians and rebels continued to shell a road 10 miles south of Luhanske, around 50 miles northeast of Debaltseve. The damage to the road means more Ukrainian troops cannot reach Debaltseve. One soldier told The Guardian there is “no ceasefire here,” while another joked it was “a present from Putin” as he gestured “in the direction of the shelling.”
The two soldiers also said the Ukrainian troops did not shoot back. Official did say troops “would return fire if attacked or if rebels shelled residential areas.”
On Monday, the European Union finally acknowledged Russian forces have invaded Ukraine and passed new sanctions against 19 people and nine organizations. The EU added Russian First Deputy Defense Minister Arkady Bakhin, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, and Deputy Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Andrei Kartapolov for “implementing the military campaign of the Russian forces in Ukraine” and “supporting the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine.” The EU also included 77-year-old Russian singer Iosif Kobzon to the list. He is known as Russia’s Frank Sinatra, but also is a member of the state Duma and visited the DNR where he “made statements supporting separatists.” The officials in the DNR appointed Kobzon to the Honorary Council. In March 2014, Kobzon also “voted in favour” of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.