Ukraine troops fight to avoid being surrounded by Russian-backed rebels

Ukrainian troops battled Monday to repel waves of Russian-backed separatists trying to surround a strategic railway hub in eastern Ukraine, while in an ominous sign for peace efforts, the rebels announced plans to boost the size of their armed forces.

U.S. official says Obama is considering sending lethal aid

Members of the armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic drive a tank on the outskirts of Donetsk on January 22. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Ukrainian troops battled Monday to repel waves of Russian-backed separatists trying to surround a strategic railway hub in eastern Ukraine, while in an ominous sign for peace efforts, the rebels announced plans to boost the size of their armed forces.

Elsewhere, the rebel stronghold of Donetsk came under heavy, sustained shelling once again. City authorities said Monday 15 civilians had been killed over the weekend in the fighting, while Ukraine authorities said five soldiers had been killed and 29 wounded overall in the east in the past day alone.

With violence in eastern Ukraine on the rise in recent weeks, President Barack Obama is willing to take a fresh look at supplying Ukraine with lethal aid, along with other options for calming tensions, a senior administration official said Monday.

Since the unrest in eastern Ukraine surged anew in early January, the separatists have made notable strides in clawing territory away from the government in Kyiv. Their main offensive is now directed at Debaltseve — a government-held railway junction once populated by 25,000 people that lies between the rebel-held cities of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Almost 2,000 residents have fled in the last few days alone.

Multiple assaults on government positions

Rebel forces have mounted multiple assaults on government positions in Debaltseve but all were repelled, a spokesman for Ukrainian military operations in the east, Andriy Lysenko, said Monday.

"The units that have arrived in support of our troops in Debaltseve are counterattacking and denying the enemy the opportunity to complete the encirclement," he said.

Separatist fighters burst through Ukrainian lines last week in the village of Vuhlehirsk on the road west of Debaltseve, getting access to a ridge overlooking the highway running north from the town.

A woman reacts as she stands near a multi-storey block of flats damaged by shelling in Yenakieve town, northeast from Donetsk, on Monday. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

On Monday, Associated Press reporters saw Ukrainian tanks shooting from open fields at the tree line on that ridge. Minutes later, the tanks rolled back onto the highway, leaving a heavy trail of mud in their wake, and taking up new field positions a few hundred metres away.

In a co-ordinated defensive manoeuvre, Ukrainian forces fired barrages from Grad multiple-rocket launchers toward the same area.

Rebels plan further mobilization

Despite government's insistence it intends to retain control of Debaltseve, rows of trenches near a bridge 15 kilometres to the north suggested a backup plan in case the town falls.

Meanwhile, the leader of the separatists in Donetsk, Alexander Zakharchenko, said new mobilization plans aim to swell the ranks of rebels to 100,000 fighters.

It's not clear how many fighters the rebels have now or how many able-bodied men are still available in rebel areas. Zakharchenko didn't say where he aimed to find apparently tens of thousands of troops.

Russia has acknowledged that some of its citizens are fighting among the rebels as volunteers, but rejects the Ukrainian and Western charge that it's backing the insurgency with troops and weapons. Western experts say, however, that the sheer amount of heavy weapons under rebel control shows extensive help from Moscow.

"While we still have time before the spring, new detachments will be able to receive military training," Zakharchenko said. "We expect mobilization to yield at least five additional brigades — five motorized brigades, one artillery brigade and a tank brigade."

Zakharchenko blamed Ukraine for the collapse of peace talks over the weekend and argued that the rebel offensive was the only way to protect residential areas from Ukrainian shelling.

"Force is the only way to protect our cities, villages and streets from the shelling," Zakharchenko said.

The U.S. official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly about internal deliberations, said Obama is reconsidering sending lethal assistance to Ukraine, but continues to have concerns about the effectiveness of that step and the risks of a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia.

The official said Obama is specifically concerned about the besieged Ukrainian military's capacity for using high-powered, American-supplied weaponry. The president has also argued that no amount of arming the Ukrainians would put them on par with Russia's military prowess.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine that erupted after Russia's annexation of Crimea in March has claimed more than 5,100 lives and forced 900,000 to flee since April.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.