LOGVINOVE, Ukraine — When Russian-backed rebels went on the offensive in east Ukraine a month ago, the focal point of the clashes quickly switched to Debaltseve, a strategically key rail junction linking their two unsanctioned states. For weeks, Ukraine's government denied rebel claims to have the town surrounded, even as artillery fire prompted most civilians to flee, killed hundreds, and destroyed the town beyond recognition.
On Tuesday, however, rebels seized most of the town and took several Ukrainian soldiers captive. A catastrophic defeat is now all but inevitable. In the days preceding their victory, photographer Max Avdeev embedded with the First Slavyansk Brigade of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in the nearby town of Logvinove. The rebels had just seized the town, cutting Debaltseve off from the last road leading to Ukrainian territory. The soldiers were mostly local volunteers, though their commanding officers were Russian — as were the men who delivered them tanks and artillery. As the deadline for a new cease-fire deal came and went overnight on Sunday, the rebels kept on shelling Debaltseve.
"We let them out once, and now they've come back to fight with us again. We told them to surrender in Debaltseve, but they didn't. Now we're not going to let anyone out," said Sergei, a rebel commander whose nom de guerre is "Kunduz."
"As soon as our enemy started to run out of breath, suddenly it's time for peace, we lay down our weapons?" he added. "Did our comrades die for nothing?"