Early February 18, thousands of Ukrainian troops began withdrawing – or rather fleeing – the (almost) pocket of Debaltseve after the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko kept them deliberately inside the trap “to show the whole world the face of the bandits-separatists backed by Russia” after the Minsk “agreement”, knowing this would cost more lives of his best troops, fighting in the area since Christmas last year.
Despite Russian invaders trying to kill as many as possible of the fleeing troops, attacking MEDEVAC points with all kinds of heavy weapons, most of the Ukrainian soldiers managed to leave the area alive, even taking some 90% of their equipment with them. However, up 100 troops were killed during the two days of withdrawal, almost 200 injured and around 120 captured by the invasion army. Two days later on February 20, not only the entire city was under Russian control, but also 420 km² of Ukrainian land (a flagrant violation of the Minsk 1-agreed on demarcation line) were lost due to the overwhelming Russian army involvement as well as the incompetence and unwillingness to counterattack by the Ukrainian side.
At the end of the day, Russia achieved what Putin had already predicted after the end of the Minsk 2 talks on February 12, namely to close the gap between its two puppet regimes in eastern Ukraine and to gain total control over all train and car traffic in occupied Donbas. After that, many western politicians and media analysts were hopeful that now, Putin’s aspirations in Ukraine would be satisfied and there would be no more need for further conflict. … Way off the mark!
As both sides stopped shooting around Debaltseve, the fire reappeared and re-intensified at the (still) Ukrainian-held, well-known hot spots around Donetsk, namely Avdeevka to its north and the frontline villages around the now Russian-held airport, namely Vodyane, Opytne and Pisky.
It seems obviously that further advance in these areas remains an imperative for the Russian invasion command as its largest occupied city (Donetsk) is still a “border town” and close to several nearby Ukrainian army strongholds, a situation it even could not accept if it had no further plans to advance westward during the next months.
At the same time, Russia’s thirst for more land is most visible in the south where the largest free city in the Donetsk region Mariupol remains a red rag for the aggressor. Hence, it is not surprising that multiple reports indicate strong reinforcements arrived close to the freshly retaken areas east of the city from Taganrog in Russia, preparing the next large-scale offensive. The expected push would not just be to retake the recently liberated small towns of Shyrokyne, Berdyans’ke, Lebedyns’ke, Pavlopil and Kominternove but to finally gain control over Mariupol itself, paving the way for the needed push westwards along the Azov Sea, via Melitopol towards the Ukrainian border with Crimea.
Around February 20, the first of these Russian troops arrived to the coastal settlement of Shyrokyne, where tanks and infantry forces, backed by mortar batteries intensified their assault on the Ukrainian-held line of defense west of the town, leading to first casualties. On February 22, visual reports of new artillery rounds, releasing multiple fragmented shells appeared, leaving no doubt Russia was serious as ever to regain the recently lost 100 km² east of Mariupol and more.
While the above assessment is based on recent fighting activity on the ground, there is more reason to believe in a resurgence of fighting in southern and western occupied Donetsk oblast. Geolocated footage of Russian army troops, involved in the fighting for Debaltseve until last week indicates those forces are not – as widely hoped for in Europe – going back to Russia after their mission in Ukraine would be accomplished, but move to potential new battlefields in the two areas described above. The most memorable formation, followed via first-hand footage, involves the high tech Russian army-only T-72B3 tanks, with many more armored vehicles crucial to last week’s victory in central Donbas and probably needed in any meaningful future assault.
The Russian main force with many T-72B1 and B3 attacked Debaltseve from Zorynsk after passing Luhansk from Russia earlier this month. This column with not less than 30 armored vehicles was filmed at several geographical points by locals moving to the south west after the battle of Debaltseve ended, indicating its redeployment to the wider Donetsk area or further south, to east of Mariupol
In conclusion, it is Russia and the Supreme Commander of the invasion Vladimir Putin only who benefit from the latest Minsk agreement.
The necessary redeployment of hundreds of armored vehicles and artillery pieces to new fighting theaters while ruling when and when not to show these movements to the OSCE, enables them to keep up the picture of “withdrawal in accordance with the Minsk 2 deal” while getting in a position to once again strike hard with all their available man- and firepower
The naive and dangerous Ukrainian 100% adherence of the agreed on ceasefire gives Russia the possibility to once again thin out certain frontline sectors (e.g. Pervomaisk and Kirovs’k for now) while not being under any threat that these open flanks will be used by the Ukrainian army for diversionary attacks. Hence, it is again Russia which will – just like after Minsk 1 – decide when and where to strike and advance, using all its military potential in eastern Ukraine at one or two chosen points while the Ukrainian side keeps stretched thin all along the almost 400 km long front.
As we have seen in January when Donetsk airport fell and February when Debaltseve and some 20 other towns and villages fell, the Russian side does not need an excuse to escalate its efforts for getting hold of a certain area, nonetheless claiming, it is obeying the agreed on ceasefire(s). It is most of the European media that feels obligated to report Kremlin-claimed “Ukrainian offensives” (like we have seen it for weeks in January) until admitting, it is Russia and its proxies, which advance and take more territory. And it is the Ukrainian government that feels obligated to not use heavy arms and counterattack in a meaningful way until it is already too late and another strip of important land miraculously turns “strategically unimportant” and can be given up to the Russian side and its puppet republics.
The aftermath of Minsk 2 seems to become a copy of the aftermath of Minsk 1 with the tiny difference that this time, Russia does not feel the necessity anymore to refrain from offensive military operations as it did for several months after the September 2014 agreement. The Ukrainian and European answers to its continuous and increasing aggression turned out to be mainly empty threats and too weak to frighten it anymore, leaving a gloomy prospect for the months and years to come.