As if the recent (almost) defeat of the Ukrainian army in the battle for Donetsk airport wasn’t enough, the Russian invasion command in Moscow once again decided to pile the pressure on its western neighbor by starting its long-awaited offensive along the Bakhmutka highway in Luhansk oblast in the early hours of January 20.
In the end, this move didn’t came as a surprise. Around noon of January 19, the Ukrainian government decided for the first time since August 2014 to call a duck a duck as it observed almost 1000 Russian army troops – two tactical task forces in battalion size – crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border in eastern Luhansk region. The invasion force, seen entering Ukraine by its intelligence services, was too big to be described as “foreign-backed terrorists”, a term usually used by the peace and calm-seeking Ukrainian government to not further provoke Russia into more aggressive steps. Shortly after, the track of the two battalions was lost, but it became obvious that they were not approaching Donetsk city where fighting is fierce, but due to the steady flow in manpower and weapons, slow but steady Russian advances could be seen since the start of the latest offensive on January 1st. Also possible reinforcements for the Donetsk forces would probably have entered Ukraine from border points closer to the main invasion base, still active 50 km south of the border. Entering via Izvaryne would have been a detour.
So it came as it was bound to happen. In the early morning hours of January 20, dozens of artillery pieces opened fire on “Checkpoint 31”, located on the junction of the so-called “Bakhmutka highway” – a road leading from Luhansk city to the larger northern towns of the region – and the small road T1317, connecting Russian-held Frunze, just 3 km south, with the strategical village of Krymske on the bank of the river Seversky-Donets, the natural borderline between Russian- and Ukrainian-held Luhansk region. The artillery fire lasted for 6 hours, beating down the Ukrainian troops manning the (frontline) checkpoint. But it was just the beginning. Shortly after artillery became silent, eight Russian army tanks came down the road from Luhansk and pounded the checkpoint, forcing the Ukrainian defenders to retreat along the T1317 north towards Krymske and T1303 towards the west. Reports say, Russian forces also attacked from Frunze, but this is not confirmed. Only known “footage” (sounds) of the entire attack comes from a “(New-)Russian” media channel, showing the “emergency evacuation” of civilians from nearby Frunze during the assault.
Around the same time the direct attack on Checkpoint 31 started, Russian army forces with armored vehicles and ground forces also attacked the village of Zholobok, 7 km to the west, from nearby Donets’kyi. The aim of this attack seemingly was to cut the withdrawal path of retreating troops from CP31 and to attack CP29, which lies just north east of Zholobok, halting it from sending reinforcements to the east. According to the Ukrainian army, several attacking forces at this battle were destroyed and the army lost the village but managed to regroup at nearby CP29 and is still holding the position. The overall attack on both sectors of the front was – according to Ukrainian observers on the ground – not only the the obvious expansion of the Russian-held territory along the strategic highway, but also the encirclement of Krymske in the north, baring Russian forces from further advances along the Severskyi-Donets so far.
The below situation map summarizes the battles that took place today to the best of my knowledge and information. Blue marks previously Ukrainian-held territory, read, Russian held, arrows attack directions and orange the newly occupied area according to my (informed) estimate.
In the evening of January 20, two things are clear:
Checkpoint 31 and most probably also Zholobk are still held by regular Russian army forces while the Ukrainian defense ministry says, it is fighting back at the moment, trying to regain control of the lost territory and especially CP31. These attempts were not successful until midnight and the NSDC spox already announced that IF the army would continue the fight or pull back would be up to its command, putting further doubt into its abilities to withstand the superior Russian army units. Astonishingly, also until January 21 local time, the Ukrainian army did not decide to use its air forces against the self-proclaimed Russian army offensive, 70 kilometers from the common border…
At the same time, partly confirmed reports of further three Russian army task force groups (each 300-500 men and equipment) waiting to enter Izvaryne or already inside Ukraine and on the way to Luhansk emerged in the evening of January 20. Their sighting plus the confirmed first overwhelming victories (described above) are unambiguous signs, Russia’s thirst for more Ukrainian soil under the pretext of saving “its ethnic population” is by far not satisfied yet and the worst in terms of military aggression is yet to come.
Important sources of battle details