The beginning of the end – Russian forces take Vuhlehirs’k

It comes as no surprise that yesterday around noon, strong Russian army forces started their so far heaviest assault on the 7800 souls town of Vuhlehirs’k, the second biggest town within the so-called “Debaltseve bridgehead”, a territory held by the Ukrainian army and volunteer corps between the Russian-ruled “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. A look at the official “ATO map” shows the strategic significance of the town, not only being the last fortress between the Russian military hub of Horlivka and Ukrainian-held Debaltseve, but also key to the only open resupply route between Debaltseve and Artemivsk, further to the west. The only road, the M03, runs just 5 km to the north east of the town and whoever controls all of Vuhlehirs’k also controls the movement between some 5000 Ukrainian troops east of it and the rest of Ukraine (map).

ato map

tactical map

Hence, it was an imperative for Russian troops to capture this town, before starting the direct attack on Debaltseve. As a matter of fact, controlling Vuhlehirs’k and the territory to its north could even avoid a direct assault on Debaltseve as a lasting siege would force thousands on Ukrainian troops to surrender without a fight, running out of food and ammunition. The general Russian strategy in the area was also described in my article from January 27, predicting “the fall of Debaltseve is inevitable […] if there is no radical change in tactics”. As there is no sign on the horizon of this change to come, regular Russian army forces began their assault from Horlivka in the west and Kayutyne in the south on January 29. While on this day, only little footage was published, showing that they overran the outer defensive line of Vuhlehirs’k, losing at least one T-72B1 and taking several Ukrainian soldiers POW, early January 30, Russian state TV published extensive video footage of the battle and its aftermath. Already on the way to Vuhlehirs’k, many Russian army T-72 main battle tanks could be seen, proving this is no further faltering skirmish, but indeed the long anticipated major push, military forces would conduct from the daily resupplied and reinforced areas north east of Donetsk city.

T-72

T-72 on the road to Vuhlehirs’k

The following footage shows the brutality of the battle that took place on the western and southern entrances of Vuhlehirs’k, where Ukrainin forces put up fierce resistance and destroyed more Russian tanks (see picture below) and likely also many troops, which are not shown on Russian footage, but were outgunned and defeated in the end, allowing the Russian army to enter the center of the town.

T-64BV

destroyed Russian T-64BV (no Ukr IFF)

Next scenes of the analzed footage show the very center of Vuhlehirs’k, where fighting still took place and residential buildings around the main intersection of the M04 highway were burning. Some Ukrainian troops seemed to still resist as shooting was aubilbe and Russian forces were still in a cautios and nervous mood.

Russian soldier

Russian soldiers in the center of the city

When the situation calmed down a little bit, Russian TV teams were able to take wider shots of the area, making it possible to geolocate and thus verify the footage. This enabled a clear confirmation of the fact that – at least yesterday afternoon – Russian forces were present in the center of the city, dominating its vital route to Debaltseve itself.

city

Geolocation of the Russian advance

At the same time, this geolocation and taking into account the previously analyzed footage made the creation of a strategic map of the battle and ground possession status possible – again – for this time yesterday afternoon. It shows that Russian forces indeed stormed Vuhlehirs’k from Kayutyne just south of it and a long the railway to the west, so from Horlivka and its suburbs. Both (footage analysis-based) assault directions were later confirmed by Ukrainian journalists and soldiers on the ground.

map

Strategic map of the battle

The crucial question remains, what happened after yesterday afternoon. While the Russian propaganda claims, it caputred most of the town and the battle is effectively over, various Ukrainian sources paint totally different pictures of the situation. The commander of the well-known Ukrainian national guard force “Battalion Donbas” for example, said this morning on his facebook page that the town was lost. Shortly after, reports from journalists on the ground said, Ukrainian forces would hold the northern and eastern part of the town, starting from the train station. This version would perfectly correspond with the created map above. However in the afternoon, the Ukrainian government’s MP and interior ministry member Anton Gerashchenko claimed that entire Vuhlehirs’k was back under Ukrainian control due to “accurate artillery strikes and daring maneuvers of our tanks”. It is telling that this most official statement so far also claimed, Russian troops only managed to capture a “suburb” of the town yesterday, but were repulsed. A flagrant lie as this article has proven. But what really happened last night? Russian media footage shows intense Ukrainian multi launch rocket system attacks. On the center of Vuhlehirs’k – and on Russian troops stationed their overnight. However, what is not shown are Ukrainian tanks or ground troops re-entering the city or any fighting from the Russian side. Instead it ends with Russian tank drivers, showing the victory sign on broad daylight.

MLRS

MLRS attacks on Russian forces overnight

Despite the fact that it remains unproven if the latest scene really shows the day after or the time before the Ukrainian artillery / MLRS “counterattack” during the night, it must be doubted that the Ukrainian army either has the technical and manpower-related capabilities in the area to launch a counteroffensive on hundreds – if not thousands – of well-armed Russian troops in the town, enyjoing a steady flow of resupplies from Horlivka and Yenakijeve. Therefore, my final assessment of the claim would be that we are talking about the same “repelling” successes as were claimed for 5 days over the new terminal of  Donetsk airport. All turning out to be untrue.

Update —

Shortly after the article at hand was published (in the evening hours of January 30), Russian LifeNews brang a report from Vuhlehirs’k, proving that the city has entirely fallen to Russian army forces and Ukrainian counteroffensives – if there were any – totally failed. Video footage does not only show heavy tank and apc forces (T-64BV, T-72B1, BMP-2) inside the town today.

tanks

Russian tanks and apc

It also contains geolocatable footage of a church in the northern outskirts of the town, showing Russian forces pointing their rifles to the north and the LifeNews “journalist” (not!) reporting without cover from possible small arms fire. According to the LifeNews report, Ukrainian forces were pushed out of the town and are shelling it with mortars and artillery from Kalynivka in the north and Debaltseve. This seems to correspond with the footage itself.

geolocation

Geolocation in northern Vuhlehirsk

From a larger distance, the geolocated footage is evidence that Russian forces took over (at least) 90% of the town including the strategic train station, which was the front line earlier this morning according to this article (read above) and Ukrainian journalist reports.

map

city map

Looking at the powerful involved forces (dozens of tanks, apc and hundreds to thousands of Russian troops), there seems to be no chance the Ukrainian army will recapture the area (as it did not recapture ANY Russian-taken area since September last year). Knowing that the Russian forces are as quickly as possible moving northeastwards, it becomes clear where their aim lies. The target is to cut the M03 as soon as possible, creating a pocket with more than 5000 Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve. Looking at the speed of their advance, this might become true within days rather than weeks.

maplarge

regional map

End of the update —

In conclusion, I might sound once again like a broken record. I wrote 3 days ago “if there is no radical change in tactics by the Ukrainian side”, it will not only lose the “bridgehead” of Debaltseve, but entire Donbas. I continued warning that “purely defensive operations against an enemy with the fire – and man – power observed in eastern Ukraine during the last 4 weeks, leads to sustained territorial losses.” I have nothing to add to these statements beside calling upon the Ukrainian government once again: Act now or start digging trenches on the eastern outskirts of Kharkiv and Zaporizhia. Because this is where the current course of the fighting is leading sooner rather than later.

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24 thoughts on “The beginning of the end – Russian forces take Vuhlehirs’k

  1. Pingback: Ukraine Protests - Page 442 - VolNation

    • Not exactly. Media, especially Ukrainian media first and foremost, misquoted and placed the statement of Viktor Muzhenko, the head of the General Staff, out of context. What Muzhenko said is that it doesn’t appear that _currently_ Ukrainian forces are being engaged _in direct firefight_ by _regular units_ of the Russian Army. He said that there are Russian servicemen among militants though and that Russian servicemen command these militants and provide them with military specialists and instructors. He also said that regular units of the Russian Army make up the second echelon of the forces of the so called “separatists”.
      Here is the comment of the Ministry of Defence official (in Russian):
      http://interfax.com.ua/news/general/247672.html

  2. Ukraine has to pull out of Debaltseve + accept cease fire/ current frontier ASAP or they are doomed ==> they did not use the time since sept. 2014 for full mobilization allhough it was obvious that the Russians would attack sooner or later; instead some spoke of retaking Crimea, idiots!!!!

  3. Europe and the United States abandoned the Ukraine alone with the superior military forces of Russia. Not helped by what weapon, even a slingshot to no avail. Hope that Russia would not attack on the European Union.
    Ukrainians think this will be forgotten?
    Betrayal nobody forgets. There are killed every day tens and hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and Europe only expresses concern.

      • it IS VERY much our business – take a look at greece, london(->litvinienko), serbia, etc… – it is time for the EU to ACT NOW!!! If Europe carries on this (narcotic) way, then we could close the file “Europe” forever. It has already begun – Greece is only a start. Huylo wants Europe down – at this time, there shouldn’t be any doubt about that. German LEO’s and MILANs for Ukraine NOW – or close Europe down for good!!! BUT ACT!!!

    • Yes, Europeans are short-sighted Cowards! They have to impose higher costs on Russia ASAP!

      • Why should we go to fight there if Ukrainian people doesn’t want to fight? And why should they? To get killed for some oligarch? Someone in Kiev felt strong and kicked Russian bear in balls and now it is too late to cry. Any “help” from outside would just mean more killing. I’m very sorry but there is no way how Ukraine can win this war if Russians will still be supporting the conflict.

  4. Your first suggestion that that is the east railroad crossing is quite correct. If one think obout the west one then some questions will raise: where are buildings behind railroad the the left? why are few trees behind the railroad th the right on video?

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  7. Even though I got branded as a Russian troll for saying that Debal’tseve is as big a mistake as the poor attempts to defend and then retake the airport were, and that the UA Army should pull back to Svitlodars’k and shorten its front line and pick its battles where it can win but not only win but win decisively. I am saying it again..

    This Russian military doctrine of trying to defend every Strategic point, City, Town, Hill or Bush is fine if you have vastly superior numbers and that is the problem, Ukraine does not have enough combat proficient troops or enough reliable modern armour to do that.

    So instead it is spread too thin and loosing good men and equipment it can ill afford to do. Pulling back and picking the battles it can win, would add a vast cost to the insurgent forces rallied against them. We must remember that to maintain the instability in Ukraine that Putin and cohorts desire, requires a constant flare up in hostilities. So it does not matter where the lines are drawn or on what map, these insurgent forces must continue to push to prevent Ukraine having some form of stability and moving on with its reforms and moving further and further away from Moscow’s influence and closer to the EU and potentially NATO.

    I still fail to understand the logic of sending 1000 National guard to the Moldova border! I kind of understand the concern about Russian forces from Transnistria, but the likely hood of that happening is quite slim, especially since Russia has made it clear it still wants to try and maintain a level of “plausible” deniability, even if that veneer of deniability is very very thin now. Yet if Ukraine had put that 1000 National guard into Avdiivka or Artemivsk it would have caused the insurgent forces a severe headache and real concern about a counter attack on Horlivka and the potential of it being cut off from Donetsk. Instead we have the situation where currently all the insurgent forces in the area are focused on closing the Debal’tseve pocket and as can be clearly seen, Ukraine is struggling to hold such a spread out and thin front line on so many fronts.

    As I also stated in my other posts, you have to question the Ukraine general staff and if they are trying to actively help these Russian insurgent forces with such bizarre command decisions or whether is is just pure ineptitude/incompetence. We all saw the purely ridiculous attempt to support the remaining defenders at the airport with 10 tanks and 10 or so APC’s which by there own admission only two tanks made their objective and most of the APC’s either broke down or got lost.

    We heard that Ukraine does have a plan to retreat from Debal’tseve if things become desperate and each unit knows the plan and who has to support who. But anyone that has spent time in a conflict knows that even the best laid plans rarely survive first contact. So It does not bode well for Debal’tseve.

    Now I realise my post has been very negative, on a more positive note the reinforcements UA has put into the Debal’tseve pocket has slowed the advance, my fear is just as the main article states it is just delaying the inevitable. The best hope is for another ceasefire agreement to come out of the Minsk talks and some kind of sudden breakout of common sense in the Ukraine General staff that allows them to make an orderly withdrawal from Debal’tseve and counter attack where they can win and win decisively, when these Russian insurgent forces get prompted by their paymasters to go on the attack again.

    • I think your proposed strategy needs one of two things:

      -A lot of space. The USSR used this strategy in WWII when they withdrew all the way to Stalingrad,and then fought a carefully prepared decisive battle -or-

      -A lot of technical skill. Germany used that numerous times in North Africa and the eastern Front when German units would withdraw, or allow enemy units to break into rear areas, then hit back very hard with mobile elite units.

      Ukraine, however, lacks alot of space in the Donbas, and after a generation or more of neglect of the armed forces, also lacks the fine technical skills needed for a withdraw, then hit back hard and mobile strategies.

      Also, the Ukrainian generals must look at the social / political situation, Emotionaly, the Ukrainians needed a victory after Illoviask (sp). Their victory was holding the airport for close to five months, and then withdrawing intact.

  8. James, your analysis is clearheaded and makes sense to me, depressing though it might be. One additional point: Ukraine needs to increase “boots on the ground” drastically and quickly. I understand that Ukrainian strength at present is in the order of 50,000. In comparison, Croatia, a nation whose population is only 10% that of Ukraine, fielded an army of 150,000 to defeat the Serbs after Vukovar and secure their independence. Ukraine can, and must, do no less. And also, for heavens’ sake, clean out that sodden deadwood in Kyiv, whose chests and beer-bellies are weighted down with Soviet-era medals.

    • The actual current strength is very vague.. If you are to believe the Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak. It is currently 232,000 and this current fourth round of Mobilisation has sent out between 60,000 to 67,000 draft notices to raise that total of active service personnel to 250,000..

      Those basic figures give away the huge problem Ukraine has, to allegedly raise the level of active service personnel by 18,000 it needs to send out more than 60,000 draft notices! Quite a few are dodging the draft by producing medical or family reasons and of course you have those that just plainly do not respond to the draft notices.

      The spokesperson of the Defense Ministry of Ukraine Viktoria Kushnir stated “As of January 25, draft notices were sent to 61,748 reservists, representing 71.7% of the planned measures” So we can take from that they are intending to issue even more draft notices to achieve the required increase of 18,000.

      The main problem comes from years of corruption within the Armed forces of Ukraine. When all these problems started with little green men taking over public buildings. Ukraine officially had 130,000 active service personnel, but it didn’t, in reality it had maybe half that, many battalions were and are still woefully understrength. Too many Generals claiming pay for service personnel that existed only on paper, unfortunately it still goes on even today when things in Ukraine’s troubled east are dire at best.

      This is why we hear so much about the volunteer battalions which Ukraine is relying on so heavily and despite some of the political unease many have with such groups as Azov, Dnepr and Aydar, we cannot deny they have been very effective fighters for Ukraine.

      Some would estimate Ukraine has closer to 185,000 active service personnel and of that maybe 80,000 are combat proficient to a standard most NATO countries would accept. I realise that sounds incredibly pessimistic and again will get me branded as a Russian troll. This is not as bleak as it initially looks or sounds, the combat proficiency is increasing rapidly every day and given the poor equipment these guys are fighting with they are doing an absolutely amazing job.

      On another good note some 2,500 have volunteered without receiving draft notices, so the picture is not as bleak as this post initially sound or as some would like us to believe.

      We come back my same point. Ukraine must pick its battles carefully and fight were it knows it can win, not just win but win decisively. Cede ground where it cannot, it must abandon this frankly absurd Russian Military dogma it is following of trying to defend every strategic point, city, town, hill and hedge as it just does not have the man power or armour to do that. This way it would increase the costs on the insurgent forces with morale sapping looses of both men and armour, then and only then will any potential political negotiation stand a chance of happening.

      Just to reitterate the point made in previous posts, I 100% support Ukraine and its independence and would love nothing more than to see Zakharchenko and his ilk crushed under Ukrainian boots. But to achieve that Ukraine has to start being honest with itself and face up to its problems, unite together and every Ukrainian has to take some personal responsibility to fix these problems its armed forces have.

      • “Selectively ceding ground”, then hitting back hard requires space and fine technical skills. Without space, the lack of technical skills can turn a planned withdrawl into an unplanned panic. Maybe an intermmediate approach would be best:

        Create special task forces, or “combat groups”- but dont call them combat groups as that was the German term.

        These Task Forces pair the best leaders with the more combative soldiers and then hit back hard when ever the rebels advance against or through ordinary troops.

        I think a good start woould be to give a capable Colonel command of a Task Force consisting of the very combat willing Donbass batallion, 2 proven companies of tanks, and an engineer company.

  9. Hi. I am on the ukrainian side and I am dissapointed by this situation. What are ukrainian generals doing ??? We are reading on internet at least one week that Delbacevo is going to be encircled and now it is reality. Why they did not send there some more forces ? Or why they do not pull back ?
    Or for example why they do not attack Donetsk, so the rebels than will have to send some forces to defend Donestsk ?

    I do not understand the commanders of ukrainian army. They should pay some american advisors !!!

    • Unfortunately I think that “help” of american advisers is the reason why Russians are fighting in Ukraine.

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  11. Pingback: Footage-based situation analysis of the current developments in Vuhlehirs’k | Conflict Report

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