Silent advances – Russian troops are closing in on Debaltseve

During the last days, the international media sight concerning the war in Ukraine was widely focused on the political arena, reporting on the Merkel / Hollande “peace plan” visits in Kiev and Moscow and the clash of arguments by Ukrainian president Poroshenko and Russian foreign minister Lavrov at the Munich security conference. At the same time, the real battlefield around the Ukrainian-held key city of Debaltseve fell from view in what seems to be another orchestrated distraction by the invasion command in Moscow. However throwing the spotlight back on the battlefield reveals worrying  developments on the ground, indicating an approaching catastrophe for thousands of Ukrainian soldiers in and around Debaltseve. After the fall of Vuhehirsk and Nikishyne to Russian army forces, new key defense points and villages become the focus of the invasion army, trying to advance on Ukrainian-held Debaltseve. After having lost substantial amounts of tanks and apc in open country assaults between Vuhlehirsk respectively Sanzharivka and their target areas in and around Debaltseve, the Russian army once again switches to smaller assaults through inhabited or wooden areas, supported by heavy artillery and MLRS fire and with a much larger success. The below map shows the focus assault directions over the last 48 hours, which will be analysed in the following paragraphs.

map mius groß

tactical map and assault focuses around Debaltseve

Vuhlehirsk and Kalynivka

After capturing Vuhlehirsk and eliminating last Ukrainian defense positions inside the city around February 3, Russian forces had to once again focus southwards, where the town’s mine was the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the area, from which troops were sent in late January to recapture the southern entrance of Vuhehirsk and some apartment blocks in its south east. On February 7, pro-Russian media published footage of finally taking the mine facility, neutralizing the last threat to its control over Vuhlehirsk from another direction than Debaltseve itself.

mine

Having secured the hinterland, Russian army forces reportedly advanced north, taking Kalynivka yesterday or today with 6 armored fighting vehicles and 2 tanks said to have taken control over the strategic village, only 3.5 kilometers from the E40 – the last remaining road leading out of Debaltseve. If they can hold the position, there is virtually no way for Ukrainian reinforcements to enter or leave the area without being subject to direct fire from the view point.

Mius and Ridkodub

Moving further to the east, the situation seems the same hopeless for Ukrainian defenders and increasingly leaning to the Russian invaders’ side despite official Ukrainian claims of holding the front. Exclusive footage from near Mius, recorded by an Ukrainian camera team, reveals that the Ukrainian narrative of “defending the frontline near Fashchivka” can not be taken as fact-based anymore. Until now it was believed that this wording pointed at the village of Mius, which lies 5 km west of Fashchivka and was so far held by Ukrainian forces. However the geolocated footage shows that the actual frontline checkpoint of the Ukrainian army was located almost one kilometer west of Mius at the intersection of the E40 and the road, connecting (now) Russian-held Nikishyne and Chornukhyne in the north (see map below).

Mius CP

the Ukrainian checkpoint near Mius

The Ukrainian TV team visited the checkpoint on February 6, finding it widely destroyed but nonetheless scattered Ukrainian army forces in the area, however not fixed to the useless infrastructure of the frontline sector anymore. Instead, it rather looks like a visit by some Ukrainian units to the area, which did not (yet) “fall” to Russian forces, but which also can not be called “Ukrainian-held” anymore from every point of view. Hence, it must be assumed the the front line in the area of Mius became a rather fluid situation with Russian forces having literally – physically(!) – destroyed any possibility to defend the area (just like they did with so many areas before like Donetsk airport or Checkpoint 31 in northern Luhansk region). The below picture shows what is left of the former Ukrainian structure.

checkpoint

The scene appears unreal, with almost a dozen of Russian and Ukrainian army vehicle wreckage lying very close to each other all around the former Ukrainian checkpoint, not only indicating extremely short range battles but also an occasional shift in one side or the other holding the intersection. There are disabled / scrapped Russian Ural and Ukrainian Gaz-66 trucks, an Ukrainian MT-LB, a Russian BMP-2, a BTR-80 and – literally side by side – and Ukrainian army T-64BV and a Russian army T-72B1, only 3 meters apart.

wreckages

wreckage around the checkpoint

The end of the video shows the TV team returning to Debaltseve with no further or new fortified front between the destroyed checkpoint and the city along the road. Though this can not be said with certainty, it seems there is no fallback level and the “defense” of the E50 between Fashchivka and Debaltseve now entirely depends on Ukrainian artillery and the plain hope that no Russian tank forces will come that way, fearing another “tank massacre” like the one near Sanzharivka several days ago, where Russian forces lost between 12 and 14 tanks and armored vehicles. This also means that after the fall of Nikishyne and the quasi-fall of the Mius fortification, Ridkodub 3 km to the south remains the only Ukrainian strong point in the area. This morning, the Ukrainian army confirmed, Russian forces have started their direct assault on the village, which is no vulnerable to attacks from the south, east and north. It should not take more than days, before the position falls as there is no change in tactics or balance of power in sight.

Chornukhyne

Chornukhyne is the closest developed area to Debaltseve. Only 3 km away from the Russian target town it becomes a prime goal to capture for Russian army forces as they hope, Ukrainian artillery and MLRS can and will not hit the town as hard as it did in open areas north of Debaltseve during the latest Russian pushes.  Latest Russian footage from February 7 gives a chilling insight into the fighting, which by now has reached the towns suburbs with the Ukrainian fortified front having fallen apart during the last days. The starting point for Russian forces is surprisingly not nearby Fashchivka but the town of Zorynsk, which is located 12 km to the north east. Geolocated footage shows that Russian army forces start from near Zorynsk’s train station (map below). Also in this battle, Russian forces rely on light infantry units with BTR-80 and not heavy tanks like previously seen in Vuhlehirsk or elsewhere.

Zorinsk

Zorynsk

Bypassing the Ukrainian front along the M04, Russian forces can next be seen in the suburbs of Chornukhyne, coming from the north. The fortified Ukrainian line of defense was breached some time ago (picture below), not without causing heavy Russian casualties as well as a destroyed T-64 and BMP-2 on the side of the road proves.

CP

the former Ukrainian line of defense

It is hard to say how far Russian forces have advanced into Chornukhyne as most geolocatable buildings are destroyed and the footage includes many cuts. However there is some indication (including “60% certain geolocations”) that the footage might show they took the way as indicated below, leading to the marked ground possession in the town.

map Chornukhyne

Tactical map of Chornukhyne

Inside the town, regular Russian army infantry can be seen fighting organized and using typical urban warfare tactics. There is – once again – no doubt that there are no or only very few “local rebels” involved in the push.

Rus soldiers

Russian troops inside the town

Conclusion

What does all this tell about the situation on the ground and the political implications? The most important inferences are:

1. The Ukrainian line of defense can in the best case be described as “fluid”. Despite this aspect is not conceded by the Ukrainian side, their held territory around Debaltseve is shrinking day after day. Former (“Minsk”) demarcation line checkpoints are in most cases already overrun by Russian forces or former Ukrainian “border” positions became virtual no-man’s-land and thus staging grounds for further Russian advances. Lost cities and villages like Vuhlehirsk, Nikishyne and Mius are new Russian strongholds from where they attack a much less fortified and hence more vulnerable new frontline – if there is any.

Nona-K

Russian army firing the 2B16 Nona-K in Vuhlehirsk

If the latest reports are true (by Tymchuk and the Information Resistance project), Ukrainian forces and Chornukhyne and Kalynivka are less than 5 km away from the crucial lifeline to Artemivsk and Debaltseve itself while the Ukrainian army was not able to recapture a singe point, town or village in the (almost) pocket of Debaltseve since the start of the Russian offensive in January.

2. Recent talks in Kiev and Moscow and even more the planned talks on Wednesday in Minsk are a charade and at the utmost a diversion by the Russian invasion command in Moscow. There is no indication of change in policy in the political arena or change in tactics on the ground. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers were not sent to Ukraine to stop or even withdraw, shortly before reaching their next big target, which is the capture of Debaltseve. There also is – frankly spoken – no need for negotiations for the Russian side as their forces are advancing on the ground. The only imaginable outcome of negotiations under the current conditions which would actually lead to a stop in fighting is the voluntary surrender of Debaltseve by the Ukrainian army. But also this – after some weeks of a lull in fighting – would only lead to new offensive operations elsewhere in Donbas with then-available forces from the former Debaltseve front.

Russia has so far never accepted meaningful negotiations or adhered to any agreement reached as it comes from a position of military strength and advance on the ground. Before the tide has turned on the battlefields of Donbas, all promises by the aggressor can be regarded as empty talk. Thus, Ukraine and the west must do anything in their capacity to gain the upper hand on the ground before they can hope for real concessions by the Russian side. Referring to the German chancellor Angela Merkel, it must be emphasized that the conflict in Ukraine cannot not be solved by military means, but only by military means. An achieved balance of power on the ground is the only working precondition for meaningful talks on a stable and unchallenged demarcation line with all involved actors.

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20 thoughts on “Silent advances – Russian troops are closing in on Debaltseve

  1. This is rather very fact loaded article that was ruined with last paragraph! Author is not distanced enough from events on the ground – in such geopolitical civil war many stakes are on the table but unfortunately not many from local people.

    It is overall simplified conclusion that raises many questions. Someone would love this report someone would hate it and that is the sign that author is flirting with one side. I would recommend to change style so that both sides hate him. That would mean that he is objective!

    Good luck!

  2. Good article, but your conclusion is flawed. Ukraine can’t gain the upper hand against the russian army in few weeks and with few not-lethal aids, Ukraine needs months and billions nobody will give to it. So Poroshenko can only minimize damages, surrender Debaltseve and Mariupol and hope it will be enough for Putin.

    • Only a fool could think that Putin will have enough, though not enough for the Crimea and Minsk. Supplies of modern weapons are the only chance. it’s opposite is Munich.

      “They could choose between shame and war: they choose shame and got a shamed war.”

  3. I’d also say good article, but flawed conclusion, as there is no logical way UAF will be able to match the Russian millitary in strenght. The only reason for arming would be to inflict enough Russian casualties so it becomes too hard for Putin to hide his involvement, and thereby halting the agression. The requirement for achieving this hinges on not delivering Russia any reasons to attack directly and outside of Donbass. Its sufficient to say that lethal support would be such a reason.

    That being said, there is no reason to arm Ukraine “russian-style”. This can for example be by moving large amounts through a strawman that is not affiliated with NATO, or creating false transactions where Ukraine have to publicly buy the weapons, while receiving tenfolds more than stated. I dont understand why only Russia can play dirty..

  4. Tactically, you are correct, strategically not so much. The battles that will decide the war are occurring in the Verkhovna Rada not the Donbas. The civilized world does not hate Putin or Russia and they are not prepared to back Ukraine unconditionally just to deny control to Putin. The delay in getting money from the IMF was not about the amount, but the reluctance of the government to implement reforms. There is no excuse for the slow rate of reform in the Ukrainian MoD either. Taxpayers of the civilized world will help Ukraine if Ukrainians want to join the civilized world of democracy and the rule of law, but if this is just a war between a couple of rival feudal princes, civilized taxpayers have no interest in seeing their money wasted in a pointless contest between barbarians. As long as their are politicians and bureaucrats in Kyiv arguing that reform can not happen as long as the war continues, Putin is winning. Once the Rada gets serious about reform, it will only be a short time before Putin is offered a Romanov retirement package by his own people, or a retirement villa in the Hague if he skips town first.

  5. The final assessment that military solution is the only solution is not correct. Assuming the premise that Russian soldiers are on the ground is true, how can a military solution work ?
    Look at the following scenarios
    1. Can Ukrainian troops beat Russians ? No way – wont work – even if Obama gifts Ukraine all the military hardware Poroshenko desires
    2. Then the other alternative is for Western soldiers to land – now which western country would stick their neck out and risk a war with Russia ? They are not idiots – I mean USA is good at needling Russia – but if it comes to a frontal confrontation, Ukraine is too small a reason to risk WWIII. Do remember , if there is a war with the west, Russia will lose – but almost all US cities – and West European cities – will burn in a nuclear hell. Who will risk that ?

    So the best option for Ukraine is to reconcile themselves to live under Russia. I don’t think Germany or France is keen to have Ukraine in EU. UK itself doesn’t want to be in EU. So who is the big backer for Ukraine ?? None – unless they make friends with Russia.

    So….. this can end only in defeat — the faster the lesser loss of lives.

    I know you wont like this – but this is the way looks to me – as a neutral observer from a country ( India ) that considers both Ukraine and Russia as friends

  6. The best way is to withdraw and let the Donbass to Russia. As the Russian Empire once lured Napoleon into Moscow. Not Mariupol, because that will make the region a little bit more self-sufficient and viable in itself. Don’t let that happen. So, no working ports, mines, plants or utilities to the so called people republics Donets and Luhansk.

    Let Mr. Putin bear the burden, isolate him internationally, fights him economically in the strongest terms, strengthen sanctions (SWIFT, go after Swiss bankaccounts of Putin and his business partners). Without doing any concession to Russia. Essential is that the West is not susceptible to blackmail by Russian nukes. That hard line is the leverage from the US to EU in not supporting Ukraine with arms. Support Ukraine economically and start integration of it into the EU.

    How long will Russia survive? Maybe 18 months, probably less. Than it wil collapse as the Soviet-Union imploded in 1989. That’s the only strategy to beat the aggression of Putin. Go after him with a wide range of measures which are adjusted to each other, but not with arms.

  7. #How long will Russia survive?
    Katz suggests:
    Maybe 18 centuries, most probably – more.
    Such a big part of continent with such natural and human resources could be self-sufficient without any doubts, and can conduct war of such scale eternally.
    Katz suggests to surrender.

  8. Spanish farmers are already lobbying to force the government to allow trade of vegetables with Russia again. Sanctions can’t last any longer this way. Better a bad peace agreement than this war. Ukraine can lose the war and win the peace if they are smart.

  9. It’s interesting to see the prevailing narratives & counter narratives evolve over time and sometimes rather suddenly in comments sections like this one across the web. Much of this is of course from directed propaganda campaigns, and you can kind of get an idea of goals & objectives by seeing how such talking points change and analyzing what they’re trying to achieve.

    As for the author’s conclusion that a military solution is the *only* solution here – I think they fail to appreciate the timeframes & logistics to integrate a *militarily significant* quantity of lethal aid from the West that will actually have an impact on the ground. Anything beyond symbolic military aid is a long-term prospect… I’m not saying they shouldn’t help arm Ukraine (there are pros & cons), but that it won’t make a shred of difference in Debaltseve or any other near-term flashpoint. It simply doesn’t work that way.

    Ukraine needs to remain internally cohesive in the interim – no small task all things considered – and enact reforms that signal to the West it’s truly serious about establishing European style stewardship. This includes military reform & restructuring.

    • The problemm is that most of you speak about reforms just thinking in a military reform at “croatian” style that would allow an hypothetical future re-conquer of Donbass. That could be a good argument to procrastinate war, but has no future. I know is pretty difficult but the only way to solve this mess is to learn how to live togethe with pro-russian population in a de-centralized country. This includes showing Russia how to be a good neighbour.

  10. Pingback: The worst case – The pocket of Debaltseve closes, trapping thousands of Ukrainian troops | Conflict Report

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