US Army commander for Europe: Russian troops are currently fighting on Ukraine's front lines
"It's very obvious from the amount of ammunition, type of equipment, there's direct Russian military intervention in the Debaltseve area," Hodges said as he toured a NATO base in Szczecin, Poland.
Debaltseve is emerging as a major tipping point in the war in Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainian troops are currently fighting in the city and the surrounding area as Russian-backed separatists, augmented by Russian forces, encircle the town.Aside from the number of troops fighting in the town, Debaltseve functions as a critically strategic town for Ukraine. Debaltseve is a crucial railway hub that brings coal into the rest of Ukraine. If the town is lost, Ukraine could face a coal shortage that would place further strain on the country's already failing electrical grid.
Hodges is also concerned that if the city falls, Russia and its separatist forces could take advantage of the chaos and shift their attention to other major sites in Ukraine.
"I do worry that if they're successful in Debaltseve they will shift their attention to Mariupol. I don't know that but I'm concerned," Hodges said.
Mariupol is a major Ukrainian port city located on the Black Sea. By taking the port, Russia could open a land bridge that would connect the annexed Crimean peninsula to the Russian mainland. In response, Ukraine has launched a counter offensive in the south-east around Mariupol to reinforce the city, Reuters reports.
On Feb. 9, Ukrainian military spokesman Andrily Lysensko warned that 1,500 Russian soldiers and 300 pieces of military equipment crossed into Ukraine from Russia on Feb. 7 and 8.
The recent rebel offenses around Debaltseve and Mariupol come as Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany hold a four-way summit in Belarus in an attempt to halt the ongoing crisis.