This morning, the Ukrainian national guard force “Regiment Azov” surprised virtually the whole world when it claimed, it started a counteroffensive east and north east of Mariupol mostly along the coastline of the Azov sea. Within hours, it pierced the thin Russian line of defense some 2-5 km east of the city and retook important towns like Pavlopil, Shyronkyne and Kominternove. At the same time it took the smaller settlements of Lebedynske and Berdyanske, which over the last month were more than once the launching pads for Russian tank, mortar and artillery attacks on the Ukrainian front east of Mariupol.
The liberated areas
First evidence pictures came from Pavlopil, which fell to Russian forces in early December last year, breaking the Minsk agreement. Geolocable footage shows, Regiment Azov indeed regained control over the town on the eastern bank of the river Kalmius, which was often used to attack nearby Orlivske and Hnutove since then. The picture shows that the “Novorossiya” flag was replaced by an Ukrainian one early on February 10.
But Regiment Azov did not limit its push to the northern countryside of Mariupol. Instead, it also attacked right eastward, not halting at the pragmatically agreed on “Minsk demarcation line”, but – rightly – crossing it to recapture what Russia had stolen from Ukraine in late September last year, when it invaded Novoazovsk and the surrounding areas from the direction of Taganrog. Simultaniously to Pavlopil in the north, Ukrainian forces captured Shyrokyne, the coastal town which was captured by Russian army forces on October 17 last year and for instance the origin of a deadly Grad attack (geolocated by me) on Talakivka 10 days later. The Ukrainian push reached further inland, with Regiment Azov reporting, they had attacked the first checkpoints of the Russian stronghold Sakhanka. However, this town could not be taken immediately, but fighting rages on. The local Russian invasion command in Donetsk confirmed the offensive shortly after, however denying that Ukrainian forces had indeed overrun Shyrokyne and claiming that fightin was still ongoing in the area.
Update: Shortly after the article was published, Regiment Azov published footage from its push into Shyrokyne. Geolocated (by me), it proves, the entire town was taken over and Russian forces remain to the north east of it (see geolocation below).
Further north, Ukrainian troops sped down the T0519 road, reaching the next Russian-held town around 11am, named Kominternove. Ukrainian forces liberated Kominternove, however Russian occupiers meanwhile adjusted to the “Blitzkrieg”-like surpirse offensive and firing at the town from Zaichenko to its east, injuring several people. The frontline remains between the tow towns, according to the latest information around 4pm local time in the afternoon.
In conclusion, Ukrainian national guard forces shifted the frontline up to 11 km to the east, taking an area of more than 100km² as the below (report and evidence footage-based) map illustrates.
The strategic goal
While during the first 3 hours it looked like Regiment Azov had left the Ukrainian chain of command and attacked eastward without Kiev’s backing, the National Security and Defense Council then reported, its secretary, Turchinov personally commanded the offensive and was in Mariupol. At the same time, the strategic purpose of the latest offensive remains. While Regiment Azov says, it was to “push the enemy frontline from the city [Mariupol] and decrease the threat of MLRS fire”, the Ukrainian army command says, it was to “return to the demarcation line military demarcation, which were recorded in the Minsk agreements”. Whatever it really is, the offensive shows that a surprise push against (locally) weak Russian lines can lead to substantial territorial gains.
The bigger picture
However it remains unclear of the move was wise. With Russian invasion forces unable to take Mariupol for now, they shifted their focus further to the north of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Now that Ukrainian forces left the cover of the town and went into open country, they are more vulnerable to enemy attacks than before. It also remains unclear, if the Russian invasion command in Mosow will accept today’s defeat in the area or rather mobilize once again its mighty military just over the border in Taganrog to launch an even harder counteroffensive. At the same time, the heinous Russian army 9A52-4 Tornado attack on Kramatorsk – 50 km from the actual frontline, killing 7 civilians and 4 soldiers – might be a first retaliation measure by the aggressor, showing he is not happy with the Ukrainian move in the south. Whatever will happen next, the Ukrainian army (/National Guard) set an important sign of exclamation with the Azov counteroffensive. After losing hundreds of soldier for just holding or losing (1500 km²) ground over the last 6 months, it now seeds a tiny glimmer of hope to millions of Ukrainians and around the globe, having almost lost hope that the status quo in occupied Donbas would ever again shift to Ukraine’s favor whether politically or militarily founded.
At the same time, this local success doesn’t change the overall picture of the military situation in Donbas. Between 1500 and 5000 Ukrainian troops remain trapped in the pocket of Debaltseve with all Ukrainian army efforts to reopen it failing so far. The Russian army is several times stronger and better equipped than Ukrainian defenders and the momentum of the battle for Ukraine will not shift due to the coastal offensive in the south. But the signal is important. Ukraine will not go down without a fight and there is some hope left, the international community will come to its senses, support Ukraine in its struggle for freedom and punish Russia for its behavior with severe political and economic sanctions.