ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine — When the order to retreat came over the radio Wednesday, most of the Ukrainian troops under siege in Debaltseve abandoned their heavy weapons, blew up their ammunition, and then fled in convoys of trucks as pro-Russian forces shot at them along the way.
But for Ilya Andrushko, one of about 30 members of Ukraine’s Lviv battalion, the only way to escape was on foot.
“We didn’t have a chance to think about the order when it came,” said Andrushko, 33. “We ran through the fields and the forests on foot, for about five kilometers. Then we just hitchhiked in whatever military vehicles would pick us up.”
After weeks under siege, nearly surrounded by rebels and calling for reinforcements that never came, they were already on the brink of collapse. They were almost out of food and water and were running out of ammunition.
Charged since mid-January with protecting the outskirts of the strategic rail town of Debaltseve, the battalion was facing the worst fighting in the Ukraine war’s hottest zone — without a commander. He abandoned them about a week ago, they said, and was blown up by a roadside bomb while fleeing.
It took them over four hours to cover the first 10 miles from Debaltseve to Svitlodarsk, the terminus for emergency and military vehicles shuttling soldiers, particularly the wounded, back to the base and the trauma hospital in Artemivsk, 20 more miles up the road.
By Wednesday afternoon, Andrushko and most of his fellow soldiers were squeezed into several rooms at the Hotel Ukraina in downtown Artemivsk, where, clearly rattled, they paced the halls, waiting for news from the rest of their team.
“We left everything in Debaltseve. We just came out with the clothes on our backs,” said Andrushko, shirtless except for a handgun he kept holstered to his chest. A few moments later, he wriggled out of his pants as well, handing them to his friend Volodymyr Trukhan, 29, whose only pair was ruined in the escape.
Standing in the hotel’s second-floor lobby wearing justhis underwear — and his handgun — Andrushko threw back his shoulders, puffed out his chest and yelled to his friend Roman, who was nursing a concussion: “Who are we?”
Andrushko and Roman roared in unison: “Lions!” — the symbol of their battalion, also tattooed on Andrushko’s chest.
Wednesday’s overnight retreat from Debaltseve left the soldiers physically exhausted and mentally torn. While the retreat was necessary, it was also late in coming, the soldiers said.
“We should have done it earlier,” said Volodymyr Makarenko, 39, a warrant officer who ran ammunition to the front lines. He said there was always the risk Debaltseve would become “another Ilovaysk” — where over a thousand soldiers died in a summertime siege. “If we hadn’t pulled back, nothing good would have come of this.”
But for many, the retreat was also a huge embarrassment — and the tipping point over frustrations with military commanders who the soldiers believe bungled the siege.
“The Russians are coming, and this is my Ukraine — Ukraine or die,” said Trukhan, a sniper with the Lviv battalion. “But our commanders abandoned us. And the Ukrainian media were repeating what they were saying in Kiev — that we had everything, that we weren’t surrounded. It was all lies.”
The collective frustrations of the more than 1,000 troops who flooded Artemivsk on Wednesday could have serious consequences for the Ukrainian military as the fight against pro-Russian separatists wears on — something almost all of them believe will happen.
Soldiers pulling back from the front lines Wednesday described their retreat as a tactical move — the same terminology Ukraine’s political leadership used. But the extent of the withdrawal has caused many to lose faith in their leaders’ ability to carry out future battles or even negotiate a respectable peace deal.
“From the moment they signed the agreement, it started to get worse,” Maxim Tymochko said of the cease-fire that was supposed to take effect Sunday. Tymochko is a legal aide to the commander of the 40th battalion, which was tasked with guarding the railroad in Debaltseve.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tried to restore some goodwill Wednesday by making an emergency trip to Artemivsk, where he met with commanders and shook hands with soldiers on the military base.
But his visit did not resolve the key questions for most of the soldiers: What comes next? And why they should believe that future fights will turn out any better.
For now, the soldiers are waiting all across Artemivsk for their next orders — to take a break at home, to head back to the front line, or perhaps to prepare to defend their new host city, as some fear pro-Russian rebels may soon push to take over Artemivsk.
They are also waiting to learn what happened to the several hundred soldiers still unaccounted for — killed, captured or lost.
At one point, as the soldiers of the Lviv battalion were describing their escape, the door to the hotel stairwell opened. A soldier in fatigues, still wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest, burst in, throwing out his hands in a greeting.
“It’s the last of our guys!” Trukhan cried, rushing over to embrace Yura Ruchko, 29, who had gotten separated from the group.
“Whoomp. Whoomp. Whoomp,” Ruchko said, mimicking the sounds of the shots he dodged along the way. “But I was lucky. A lot of our friends were left there, and their bodies weren’t even picked up.”
Alexander Pustovit contributed to this report.