Exclusive: Ukraine’s war realities, unprettified

During my last trip to Kyiv, Dnipro and Donbas, I’ve been in several closed-door meetings with military staff and international strategists. The following text lists some of my observations and things I was told about realities of the war in Ukraine.

All information was provided under Chatham House Rules, so it is much more straight forward than what you would hear or read from official briefings and politicians’ statements. For the same reason, I won’t name any source, naturally.

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The Ukrainian Army leadership in Donbas

 

Russian forces and support

Right now, Ukraine faces some 36.300 separatists (most of them Ukrainians) at the front. While 2016 saw around 9.000 Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, this number declined to 3.000. “The problem is that they left their equipment all behind. High tech equipment.” Military academies and (Ukrainian) separatist army training bases work “highly efficient”, some still under Russian army command with many trainers being Russian-trained Ukrainians by now. They are now training “the 3rd generation” of fighters, meaning Russian-trained Ukrainians educate new Ukrainians. Separatist troops are trained on traditional weapons as well as state of the art Russian Army electronic warfare equipment, the invaders left-behind. This results in a well-trained enemy army.

However, over the past months, Russians have reduced logistic and military support in Donetsk and Luhansk. The DNR/LNR military and political leaderships are panicking about this and consider having their own offensive operations against Ukraine, fearing Russia might look for “diplomatic solutions” in which they might cease to exist.

Right now, separatist/Russian forces of the first and second army corps have 478 operational tanks, 848 APCs and 732 artillery pieces inside Ukraine. Approximately the same amount of equipment is located directly on the Russian side of the occupied territories and can be deployed to the territories within less than one day (with Russian soldiers operating most of the weapons systems).

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A look into the Ukrainian HQ bunker in Donbas

Technology gap

“Russia is a master of jamming. They don’t need weapons to drown our drones. They jam them”, one officer said. He was asked, who used drones and jamming to counter enemy aerial vehicles. His answer: “Both sides, but they are definitely better than us.”

What the Ukrainian army needs at the front – and hopes to receive from the US –  is “night vision equipment, jamming systems, radio intelligence tools and secure communication systems, especially to operate UAVs”.

One quite bold argument why drones must be equipped with night vision and laser targeting equipment was, that Ukraine wants to see where it returns fire. “70% of their artillery and mortar positions are located in close proximity to civilian structures in urban areas. Most of the shelling occurs at night. If we return fire, we would like to see what we hit. This would reduce the risk of hitting civilians.” The officer said that Ukraine must strike back if the pro-Russian fire in violation of Minsk threatens the lives of their forces. They do this almost daily, “endangering our own civilians” (in the occupied areas). They want to change the situation, but need more foreign support to do so.

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An Ukrainian National Guard “Kozak” armoured vehicle

Separatist war tactics

Some examples of how separatists fight, break the ceasefire and trick the OSCE SMM were given. Around Horlivka, separatist positions sometimes shell each other. “They call them and say, take cover. Then they fire with small arms and both positions ‘return’ fire on us.” Sometimes, separatists fire on their own, sometimes they seem to seek permission from their Russian officers, which are positioned several kilometres behind the front. “This morning, we intercepted their communication. They yelled at their HQ that they were under fire, lying to their officers. We did not fire any shot. Now we wait what the response might be.”

Also, separatists occasionally use entrenched BMP-1 some km from the front as “ballistic weapons”, using their main gun to shell the Ukrainian front “like mortars”. This tactic is used to avoid being spotted by OSCE monitors. It also only very seldomly causes damage or casualties.

Also, the army calls the war tactics of the separatists a “hybrid war”, meaning “propaganda today is the major part in it”. On one day, separatists opened fire 35 times and Ukraine returned fire 8 times. The enemy tenfolded the figure and sent it to the JCCC and the OSCE. “Suddenly we attacked 80 times … “

IMG_1546_cenBriefing at the 128th Separate Mountain Infantry Brigade’s HQ in Toretsk

Europe keeps Ukraine’s army small

The European Union, also Germany, deny Ukraine the military support they want, because the EU wants the Ukrainian army “to punch below its fighting weight”. It knows Putin is the aggressor but also has no full trust in Ukraine’s commitment to the Minsk agreement. It fears, nationalist forces could win the upper hand via democratic elections or within the military structure and launch a surprise offensive to regain what belongs to Ukraine in the east.

Some figures within the Ukrainian political and military sphere see this as the only chance as Minsk does not seem to return any square meter to its rightful owner. At the same time, the Ukrainian army feels – and is – much stronger than in 2014 and could throw its weight into the battle to see if it can recapture entire Donbas. However no one thinks that Poroshenko would order such an attack as another defeat would mean the end of his political career. To make sure, nobody in the Ukrainian leadership does, the EU wants Ukraine to remain under-equipped to a certain degree. Also it is afraid that IF Ukraine’s army became a proper opponent to what Russia can send it at any moment, the conflict could spiral out of control.

The Ukrainian army position on the diplomatic initiative is: “Russia suffers under the sanctions, keeping them in place is the only way to eventually solve the conflict due to negotiations”. Some experts think that this implies, lifting the sanctions against Russia could make the Ukrainian government and army turn to “Plan B” as mentioned above.

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An Ukrainian trooper stands guard near our convoy

Minsk line and the grey zone

Asked about OSCE observations that the Ukrainian army sometimes advances into the grey area, officers made it clear that they regard the – signed also by Russia! – September 19, 2014 contact line as the real one, according to Minsk. This means the army sees advances into the grey zone “to supply our citizens in it” and possibly take new positions as its full right.

The grey zone, meaning points behind what Ukraine holds now but what it regards as on its side of the September 19, 2014 contact lin,e reaches “between 200 meters and 7 kilometres” into not-held territory, sometimes held by separatists, sometimes held by nobody. Thus, it includes “hundreds of settlements” which Ukraine regards as under its protection according to the first Minsk agreement. The army denies that entering these areas violates Minsk and left open, whether it could install permanent positions inside this area. For now, only temporary advances are on the agenda.

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Map of Donetsk in the Ukrainian Army HQ in Donbas

Economic downturn risks

While Ukrainian politicians are not really afraid of the country’s recession getting out of control, some foreign experts, living in Kyiv, paint a worst-case scenario. The Euro-Hryvnia exchange rate fell from 1:10 in December 2010 to 1:31 in September 2017. If the Hryvnia fell to between 1:50 or even 1:100, experts fear there could be a mass exodus of Ukrainians to the EU. “You have 5 million people, trying to get into Poland, if that happens”, one expert told me. More millions would try to reach other parts of the EU, traveling via Belarus and Poland to the Baltic states or Romania towards Spain. “Do you want to shoot these people? ‘Cause this is the only way you could stop them in such a stuation”, the expert asked

Russian-speaking people could turn to Russia, fleeing to it or even rise up in the eastern and southern regions, trying to make those areas part of Russia. By the way: All experts agree that Russia is not better off economically, just more successfully creating that image with its propaganda, also received among many “neutral” Ukrainians.

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Visit to a steel factory in Dnipro Oblast

Because of all this, economic experts assume that Ukraine is “too big to fail” and must be economically secured at any price. So the fight against the economic downturn is closely connected to the fight against Russia’s hybrid war on the country and the fight against corruption.

Speaking of corruption: One airborne unit commander gave Mr. Rasmussen a “message” to Poroshenko: “Please remind the president of 2014 and the Maidan: If we lose the war against corruption, we not just lose the war in the east, but also all of our state.”

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Silent Advance Part III – Russian forces advance towards Avdeevka

Over the last months – before and after the signature of the “Mins 2 peace treaty” – daily reports of shelling and small arms attacks on the Ukrainian town of Avdeevka, 3 km north of Donetsk, appeared. However, the Ukrainian army never reported of territorial advances by enemy forces and thus own losses in land possession and defensive positions of the 35.000 inhabitants city, the biggest frontline town, directly bordering occupied Donbas.

However, recent geolocated footage of Russian forces prove, also on this front, Ukraine is silently conceding land to the invasion army while claiming its forces hold the front since the fall of Debaltseve around February 20.

Unfortunately, there is not much footage coming from the hot spot fighting areas North of Donetsk, mostly because it is life threatening to record it in the “triangle of death” between Avdeevka, Spartak and Opytne. Thus, beside several written reports, the last geolocable footage from the area appeared in early February, when Russian forces pushed Ukrainian defenders back from the “passenger carload depot” train station, bordering Spartak to the east.

spartak

Since then, the front seemed to have stabilized, not because of the – mostly “Minsk 2” imperative to not further advance, which is widely ignored by the Russian side, but because of the geographical circumstances, namely the open fields and rural landscape between Donetsk and Avdeevka, hampering unrecognized military movement in the area. This was a big luck for the Ukrainian side as the forest directly south of the inhabited part of Avdeevka offer a perfect launch pat for sabotage missions and bigger ground forces moves. Given the early February setting, approaching enemy forces could be spotted and addressed by snipers, tanks or even indirect artillery fire, which was an important precondition for a successful defense of Avdeevka against the backdrop of further Russian territorial aspeirations.

before

All these advantages disappeared since then. Geolocated and analyzed footage from April 28 shows Russian forces not just crossed the plain between Donetsk and Avdeevka, but also built (at least) one “bridgehead” on its northern side, just along the railway tracks. Hopes that these troops were only reconnaissance teams were short-lived when further footage from the area appeared, revealing bunkers and tranches, established in the area. It is not clear since when, these forces are stationed in the area, but the April 28 “good news” from Russian invasion media that they approached Ukrainian forces until 200 meters and a seemingly southwards oriented sand back installation, indicate the takeover took place during the last days, possibly coinciding with a Russian Grad missile attack in the area (strictly forbidden by the Minsk treaty). Although there is no more footage from the area, it must be assumed from the three available videos and the behavior of troops, seen in it, that other Ukrainian forward positions have also fallen meanwhile and there is little fear among filmed units at the front to be counterattacked from anywhere else than the north and possibly north west.

Thus, the situation now looks – once again – much more gloomy for Ukrainian defenders, which – under daily small arms, mortar, artillery and Grad attacks seem to have left their forward positions along the February front. These withdrawals and – obviously – no attempts to recaptured the “Minsk-lost” territory have not just political implications (the weakness and timidity of the Ukrainian military and political leadership) but also severe strategic ones. Not just have the former Ukrainian-built trenches and bunkers fallen to Russian forces. Ukraine has also lost the ability to monitor and hence prevent larger scale military moves by the Russian invasion army in the area. The next Ukrainian-held territory now seems to be in Opytne and Avdeevka itself. Both are located beyond possible visual axes to overlook the area, which adds to the strategic advantage of the Russian side (see example picture and map below).

bridgeafter

In conclusion, the “Minsk-silently-captured” 4 km² and strategically important forward positions South of Avdeevka add – just like the captured territory East of Mariupol and across the Serversky-Donets near Stanytsia-Luhanska – to the traditional Russian territorial gains during “Minsk times”. By these – Ukrainian-concealed – frontline developments during peace times, Russians get into the position to strike harder and more effective as soon as they decide to resume their offensives with all available means. The result of such moves were visible around Donetsk airport and Debaltseve, where Russian forces were allowed to moved into positions during calmer periods and then achieved all their military goals during more hot ones. It remains to be seen, if the latest silent Ukrainian losses will play a role in future military confrontations. But given the fact that the Russian invasion command in Moscow already set its eyes on strategically-important Avdeevka and knowing, Russia is doing everything in its power to upgrade its hybrid army in Ukraine, its silent advances – respectively, Ukraine’s irresponsibly-silent losses – could bear fruit for it rather sooner than later.

Silent advances reloaded: Ukraine loses another village East of Mariupol

In the recent days, fighting in Eastern Ukraine intensified once again with the Russian side, starting the next round of (previously-announced) escalation. 18 Ukrainian soldiers were killed and wounded over the last 24 hours without any political actor – neither in Europe or Kiev – calling Russia’s current “Minsk 2 bluff” and declaring the treaty as broken and consequences to be implemented immediately.

But this appeasing silence doesn’t only cover up dead Ukrainian troops and daily Minsk 2 violations by the Russian side (using violence in principal and weapons, forbidden by the signed treaty) It also conceals more territorial losses by the Ukrainian side. I documented and proved the loss of Kominternove, Pavlopil, Pyshchevyk, half of Shyrokyne and two bridgeheads on the Ukrainian side of the Serversky-Donets river, just shortly after the ink under the Minsk 2 treaty dried. But the Russian advance continues with one focus being Mariupol, on which the invasion army is creepingly closing in, meter by meter over the last two months.

The last position that fell under their control is the village of Vodyane, located 2 km to the N-E of Lebedyns’ke and 7 km East of the Mariupol city limits itself. The last solid confirmation that Vodyane was under Ukrainian forces’ control appeared at March 2 and March 7 when the Ukrainian army command of sector M reported small arms and mortar attacks on the village. While there were some more reports about fighting in the area, my map from March 21 raised first (slight) doubt about who controls the village, leaving the possibility that it turned into “no man’s land” between the two parties.

Then yesterday, April 13, final confirmation came from Regiment Azov that the village was not just what the Ukrainian military calls “located in a buffer zone”, but fell back under full Russian control and now serves as an artillery firing position for 122 mm pieces, most probably Russian army D-30 systems. The Azov tank commander also said, Ukrainian forces had to attack Russian positions in the village with heavy weapons to silence the artillery fire for the moment. The “Before and After” map below show the situation as it looked before the confirmation of the loss and now, based on an informed estimate and the inclusion of all available sources.

before after

The severeness of the territorial situation becomes even more obvious / frightening, when comparing what Regiment Azov and other Ukrainian forces recaptured from the Russian occupation army in early February and what is left of these gains now after the fall of Vodyane.

mariupol 14.4.

Map source: http://slovoidilo.ua/ Own marks and insertion of Vodyane village

As it can be seen in the map, the buffer zone, Ukrainian forces created in their 3-day blitz in February to safeguard Mariupol is almost nonexistent by now. All territorial losses appeared after the Minsk 2 treaty was signed by all involved parties and are downplayed by the Western/Ukrainian side to “further deescalate the situation”. In point of fact, the opposite is the case. It remains to be seen how the situation in the last two Ukrainian strongholds in the area, Lebedyns’ke and Shyrokyne, develops over the coming weeks and months. However the Russian intention to get back into striking distance of Mariupol seems clear as well as realizable as long as Ukraine and the west hushes up the seriousness of the situation there and along the entire front.

The next logical step – Russia supplies its invasion army in Ukraine by train

Against the backdrop of an – again – escalating war in Eastern Ukraine, it was revealed today that Russia extended its “support for the rebels” or rather: supply of its troops by a further mean, namely by a direct train connection from Russia into occupied Donbas.

Given the fact that the Russian invasion command did everything to conquer the important railway knot of Debaltseve and seeing a steady escalation in Russian-led violence in Eastern Ukraine over the last weeks, the assumption that full-scale hostilities will resume until summer seems rather obvious. Thus, it is no surprise that the Russian army needs to create a strong and steady supply line to its forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Rumors that such line was established popped up here and there over the last 2 months, however, solid evidence was missing so far.

This changed today, when the Ukrainian Twitter user “Lenz Gottfried” uploaded a picture of two Russian “hybrid” troops, hugging at an undosclosed train station in front of what seemed to be a (state-owned) Russian Railways cargo train, packed with ammunition boxes.

russian railways

According to the uploader of the picture, the boxes contain ammunition for the «Акации» / 2S3 Akatsiya self-propelled artillery, however this type of artillery system is not known to have been deployed by Russian forces so far. While this description might be a (rather unimportant) mistake given the clearly military cargo inside the wagons, the exact geolocation of the picture inside Ukraine was crucial to verify the claim that the scene played inside Ukraine. This process needed no less than 2 hours, in which I matched more than 50 train stations inside occupied Donbas with the picture, searching for a facility with the properties and objects that can be seen in it. Finally, I found the right one and was able to confirm that despite the small ammunition type error, the scene indeed shows what it claims, namely a direct Russian army supply line into Ukraine’s Luhansk region via railway, more precisely the town of Sukhodil’s‘k, around 10 km from the border with Russia. The below picture shows the analytical chart that verifies the location as well as the way, the train probably took to get there.

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As it can be seen in the chart above, the train likely entered via the Russian-occupied Izvaryne border crossing, which (despite claims to have done so) the Ukrainian army was never able to reach since the start of the invasion in April last year. Thus, it served  as a safe passage for Russian troops and equipment, crossing it in vehicles as well as the notorious “humanitarian aid convoys”, since then. However its use for the illegal entry (aka invasion) of Russian army-organized and -stuffed trains hasn’t been proven so far. This changed today.

Where does all this lead?

The emergence of the train in Sukhodil’s’k, 18 kilometers of tracks into Ukraine, is – for sure – only the tip of the iceberg. At this very location, no Russian arms are needed right now and the town only serves as a transit point for that kind of carriage. Instead the tracks, lead towards the front near Stanytsia Luhanska in the north and practically endlessly towards the west, where fighting increased over the last 4 weeks. More such deadly cargo, transported by train, should and will be found along these axes, then however, probably not in Russian Railways wagons anymore.

Finally, the first appearance of Russian state trains, filled with ammunition, inside Ukraine, is another stark reminder that this conflict is far from over. Instead the Russian side takes a – well-documented – deep breath to come back with all its “hybrid” force and take more territory inside Ukraine; probably before this summer. The usage of Russian trains to facilitate that carefully and long-planned move is just another logical step in Russia’s escalation ladder and thanks to the “media friendly” invasion troops, its revelation was just a question of time.

The battle of Shyrokyne – escalation is looming

While the front between Ukrainian and Russian troops seems quite stable during the last weeks, several solid indication points at an escalation during the coming weeks with one main hot spot seeming to be the area East of the coastal hub Mariupol, namely the village of Shyrokyne.

Regarding the Russian side, there have been a number of attacks on the Ukrainian fortifications on the Western outskirts of the village over the last weeks, sometimes more, sometimes less intense. Five days ago, the so far heaviest artillery attack took place, not only on the Ukrainian line of defense in Shyrokyne, but also on the villages located behind, namely Berdyanske and Sopyne. The attack on March 31 included the notorious 2S1 “Gvozdika”, a self-propelled artillery piece, which held and important and finally decisive share in the attack on the Ukrainian line around Debaltseve in February. The below map shows which locations were hit, based on geolocated video footage of the attack.

Sopyne

However, this attack was rather an exception, testing the Ukrainian reaction. Beside that, most attacks over the last weeks were conducted by small arms, grenade launchers and 82 as well as 120 mm mortars. The number of tanks and apcs involved whereas was quite manageable, never exceeding 2 or 3. However, this might change shortly. The OSCE is active in the area, reporting military activities from both sides. In its yesterday report it stated that it launched a drone in the area on April 3, two days ago, witnessing an extraordinary buildup in Russian military hardware. From analyzed drone footage it concluded that no less than 15 Russian main battle tanks – supposedly T-64 and T-72 are stationed “in areas around Shyrokyne”, indicating a large-scale attack is planned during the coming days or weeks. It is worth mentioning, that the same drone only observed one Ukrainian armored personal carrier near Shyrokyne. While Ukrainian forces from Regiment Azov are known to have several T-64B1M located at the second line of defense in Berdyanske, their number should not exceed 2-5. Given the fact, that the OSCE’s drones have a relative short operational range, it must be concluded that the Russian offensive power in the area exceeds Ukraine’s defensive capacities by a multiple. Especially knowing, that larger-caliber weapons like Grad missile launchers and heavy artillery is pulled far back behind Mariupol at the moment.

Looking at the Ukrainian side, some interesting as worrying developments could be seen during the last 48 hours. There is no doubt that Ukraine’s regular army proved in several cases (/battles) over the last months that is is either not able or – rather – not allowed to battle the Russian invasion force with the necessary endurance and – yes – harshness to inflict enough damage to stop or at least significantly slow its Western advance. This is no critique to the troops, fighting on the ground, but to the officers and especially general staff, giving dubious orders to say the least. At the same time, (partly former) volunteer troops from the “Battalion Donbas”, “Regiment Azov”, “Pravy Sector” and others turned out to be much more persistent and free in their decisions to use tactics and means to hold back the Russian aggressors in meaningful ways. Thus, it is no miracle that those troops hold several sectors of the front, including the one East of Mariupol and along the Kalmius river northwards. However, these troops seem to have been reinforced by even more remarkable or rather irregular forces, more specifically foreign fighters from Chechnya and the Chechen diaspora in Europe, willing to settle outstanding scores from earlier wars with Russia.

The so-called “Sheikh Mansour Battalion” consists of volunteer Chechen men, some of them battle-hardened in earlier conflicts like the two wars in Chechnya but also Syria. The last aspect is remarkable as journalists which were in contact with these volunteers inside Ukraine mention, they admit to have fought under the Islamic State terrorist group in Northern Syria before turning to Ukraine to fight the Russian invaders in Crimea and Donbas. Having an Islamist terrorist background or not, the deployment of those fighters represents a direct breach of the Minsk 2 treaty, calling in point 10 for the:

Pullout of all foreign armed formations, military equipment, and also mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine under OSCE supervision.

However, the RUSSIAN side is the last that should start complaining about that treaty violation.

Video footage shows the Chechen fighters, being on the very front between Russian and Ukrainian forces in Shyrokyne. They are not only defending the Ukrainian fortifications, but conducting commando raids deep into the embattled town, looking for direct battle contact with Russian troops in the area. Geolocation of their uploaded footage allows to get some insight into their advance (see map below, green line is the way they took).

Chechens

This development implies several implications:

1. The Russian invasion army obviously drew its former – and still – enemies with it into Ukraine, which could add to its troubles on the territory of its Western neighbor. Chechen forces created hell for Russian invaders back in the 1990s and the mere shout of “Allah hu akbar” in the streets of Shyrokyne has the potential to frighten them a lot and change things on the ground from a psychological point of view.

2. The Ukrainian leadership obviously has chosen to allow proxies to do what it is officially not willing to do, namely to provoke the Russian side by inflicting damage on it due to offensive operation. Back in February, it was Regiment Azov that was allowed to advance in the south, while the Ukrainian leadership was in active negotiations with Europe and Russia to calm down the conflict. Also then, it looked like the government was searching for a way to not totally surrender while complying with the Minsk 1 and later Minsk 2 treaties. Regiment Azov was the best way to do so as it still has a semi-autonomous leadership within the Ukrainian national guard command structure and Kiev can claim to be “not fully responsible” for its actions.

3. The cooperation of Azov forces and Chechen Islamic fighters can be seen as a myth buster insofar that it shows, prejudices towards the two groups and possibly towards each other don’t apply against the backdrop of a common enemy. The “fascists” – or rather nationalists – from Regiment Azov seem to have no problem with fighting side by side with foreign Muslims when there is enough reason to do so. On the other side, the – at least partially – former IS members from Chechnya seem to have no problem to fight with Christians and alleged “nationalist xenophobics” from a European country. The below picture shows a Chechen fighter in the foreground and an Ukrainian trooper – probably from a National Guard unit (Donbas or Azov) in the background, getting ready for battle.

Chechen Ukrainian fighters

In conclusion, there seem to be steady steps of escalation from both sides, expecting armed confrontation to flare up during the spring. Russia has concentrated enough forces in the area to pierce the Ukrainian line of defense and return to the city limits of Mariupol. It has demonstrated more than once during the last 6 weeks that it does not regard its signature under the Minsk 2 treaty as limiting its territorial aspirations in Eastern Ukraine and especially along the Azov Sea cost. At the same time, Ukraine seems to have finally noticed that there cannot be any trust in the Russian side, especially after the fall of Debaltseve after the signing of the Minsk 2 agreement. Hence, it has decided to deploy fighters to the front area, willing and able to harm Russian troops. By sending foreign “volunteers” to the front that are raiding Russian positions beyond “firing back” after ceasefire violations, it has chosen to provoke the Russian side. A provocation that is far smaller than firing mortars and other weapons over the demarcation line daily, but still a provocation that will be regarded as a “gross violation of the Minsk protocol” by the hypersensitive Russian side, just waiting for things like that to happen to justify further escalation. Ukraine knows that and seems willing to pay that price to keep its face in the light of daily Russian attacks on its troops, which have killed Ukrainian 9 soldiers during the last 48 hours alone.

Revealed: Ukraine silently surrenders more territory under the Minsk 2 agreement

Lost territory after Minsk 2

During the first days of the Minsk 2 ceasefire deal, Ukrainian forces lost some 70% of the recently regained territory east of Mariupol. However, these losses were not that dramatic as Russian forces occupied the land over the previous 5 months at that time and forces of Regiment Azov managed to hold some of the soil to establish a new line of defense east of the coastal hub of Mariupol. Ukraine also lost the city of Debaltseve plus dozens of surrounding towns and villages after the 2nd Minsk document was signed – enough reason to nullify the entire fake treaty by the way. But all this happened during the first week of the signed “ceasefire and peace deal”, when emotions and battlefield actions still ran high. Also the strategic value of all losses during that week were manageable, given the fact that Debaltseve was mostly encircled at this time anyway and the focus in the south lies on Mariupol and not villages like Pavlopil or Kominternove.

Repetition of mistakes 

At the same time, the events that took place during the last 5 days around the strategically important north eastern frontline town of Stanytsia Luhanska must be called “dramatic” and are mostly comparable to what happened during the Minsk 1 “ceasefire” deal around the new terminal of Donetsk airport. Russian forces used the time to close in on the terminal, occupying places just 50 meters away and laid ground for their offensive in January, which finally reached its goal to entirely take the strategic and symbolic airport.

Where is Stanytsia Luhanska located and why is it so important?

Stanytsia Luhanska is a former 12.000 inhabitants town which is located almost on the North Eastern very end of the Ukrainian-Russian front in the Donbas region. It’s fall would not only mean another settlement falling under Russian control, but the emergence of a strong Russian bridgehead beyond the Minsk 2 demarcation line river “Seversky Donets” and an extension of the direct Russian-Russian-occupied border inside Ukraine and thus the possibility for Russian troops to bring more reinforcements directly from Russia to the front inside Ukraine and push more effectively towards northern Luhansk region.

Unbenannt

Until now, the town and its surrounding villages were in the comfortable situation of being located just north of the frontline-river Seversky Donets, which as a natural barrier stopped the Russian advance back in August 2014 and was – also therefore – so far defended with all necessary means by the Ukrainian army and its volunteer allies. This changed after the Minsk 2 agreement.

Futile trust in the Russian side

Ukrainian leaders – once again – were shortsighted and naive enough to pull back their forces from the river, relying on the Russian adherence to the Minsk agreement. Admittedly: Crossing bridges over a RIVER, defined as a common border, is the most flagrant and visible violation of a peace treaty imaginable and there can be some confidence, no halfway reliable partner – even enemy – would violate an agreement in such blatant way, if he wants to be taken by his word in ANY future negotiations. However, the Ukrainian side once again seems to have forgotten who we are talking about, namely the Russian expansionist regime under its ruthless leadership.

Not even 5 weeks after signing the Minsk 2 treaty, the Russian invasion command in Moscow decided to ignore the agreed on demarcation line and cross the Seversky Donets river at two points, not just to control strategically important bridgeheads for now, but also to have a springboard for their – surely already planned – attack on the town and wider northern Luhansk region in the coming months.

Losing the first bridgehead

As a logic consequence (of their “not-before-Kiev” satisfied territorial aspirations in neighboring Ukraine), Russian forces crossed the – unguarded – railway bridge west of Stanytsia Luhanska on March 16, establishing a well-fortified bridgehead on the eastern riverside, some 1100 meters from the town itself. Ukrainian forces realized the crossing of the river, but were – “in accordance with the Minsk agreement” – not allowed to attack the Russian corps and re-establish the agreed-on Minsk demarcation line. Instead, they “went to the militants and asked them to return to their side of the river”, which must be described as beyond naivete. While the talks attempt and the threat to recapture the area by force was first announced by the governor of Luhansk region, these aspects were later removed from the official news release, likely b/c the leadership in Kiev ordered a total silence and no reaction on the events.

railway bridge

No military response – not even an official complaint to the signers of the Minsk 2 deal or the OSCE – happened and the newly established line of contact on the wrong side of the river was simply pretended to never have happened in Ukrainian policy and media announcements since then.

Losing the second bridgehead

Three days later on March 19, news of a battle at another bridge, south of Stanytsia Luhanska emerged, with the official statement saying the bridge was “completely destroyed” by a large explosion, indicating this explosion was triggered to prevent the repetition of the March 16 events (described above), some kilometers to the north west.

However on the next day, March 20, Russian TV accompanied a (pro-)Russian fighter walked over the bridge, not only showing, Ukrainian forces had abandoned their side of the river and there were no defenders left, but also making it possible to geolocate the exact cut of the bridge which is not – as claimed by the Ukrainian side – over the water, but well into the Ukrainian-controlled side of the river and thus not stopping a technically advanced enemy force at all.

bridge cut

Final conclusions on the situation could be drawn today, when Ukraine’s Channel 5 sent a  camera team to the region, proving that the incredible had happened. The Ukrainian army completely withdrew from near the river bridge south of the town and “Luhansk People’s Republic” / Russian forces had established yet another bridgehead on the northern bank of the river,now controlling two of the four bridges, connecting occupied Luhansk with the still-free part in the area.

2nd bridgehead

Further geolocated Ukrainian TV footage showed that badly equipped and low-numbering Ukrainian forces withdrew some 1100 meters from the newly established Russian bridgehead, just as witnessed at the western railway bridge crossing.

Strategic consequences

Summarizing the strategic situation in the area reveals a gloomy outlook. There are now two Russian bridgeheads on the northern / eastern / Ukrainian side of the river, which saved the Ukrainian military of being overrun since more than 7 months. For no understandable reason, the Ukrainian military and political leadership decided to give up its largest strategic advance on the front, allowing the already superior invasion army to build springboards to Stanytsia Luhanska and thus nearby Shchaystya  as well as Novoaidar little more north.

2 bridgeheads

While the southern bridgehead can be used to bring in infantry troops (at least until the car bridge is repaired), the western occupied railway bridge can be used to send heavy weapons like tanks over the river. Beside those obvious advantages, the Ukrainian side also bargained away the possibility to monitor the river itself, checking for pontoon bridges to be established by Russian army sappers (as seen before). The losses themselves and no military attempts to regain the two lost positions must be called absolutely irresponsible from a military as well as political point of view. Beside the dramatic change of the military initial situation on the ground, it remains once again a riddle, if the Ukrainian political and military leadership is deliberately suicidal and actively trying to put more of its soil under Russian control or completely incompetent, making exactly those tactical errors (again and again) that worsen its situation in the gravest possible direction.

OSCE “at work”

Last but not least, today’s footage by Ukrainian Channel 5 again showed the uselessness of the current OSCE mission to Eastern Ukraine. The TV team approached the newly established Russian ( “LNR”) checkpoint, which was obviously on the wrong side of the Minsk 2 – fixed demarcation line, together with at least one OSCE monitors jeep. When the OSCE monitors saw what happened from their car (from almost 500 meters away), they decided to turn around and not check for further details or – how odd would this be?! – ask the Russian forces to stick to the Minsk 2 ceasefire and demarcation line agreement and return to their side of the river.

osce

In the end, nobody seems to be really unhappy with the very recent Russian advances over the Seversky Donets and thus over the agreed on Minsk 2 demarcation line. Not the Russian side, not the Ukrainian side and not the neutral monitors. … Which is bound to end in disaster.

Silent advances – the Russian offensive towards Mariupol already began

Eight days after the fall of Debaltseve (article), many analysts still believe, the worst in terms of fighting might be over in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s thirst for more territory appeased. Fighting activity continuously decreased during the last days along the border of occupied Donbas and yesterday was the first day of no Ukrainian fatalities since the signing of the Minsk 2 agreement on February 12. Still, this impression deceives.

The prediction, I stated in my last article, that large parts of the offensive Russian forces which were active in and around Debaltseve moved south after their victory there and will soon turn up in the greater Donetsk area as well as near the southern coastal city of Mariupol was meanwhile confirmed by multiple analysts, including several sources on the ground in southern Donetsk region. However, what seems not to have been realized by analysts and international media organizations yet is that the question, whether or not an attack towards Mariupol will take place or not has already been answered. It started the moment, Debaltseve fell to the invasion army.

In early February, Ukrainian national guard forces from Regiment Azov were not willing to obey the suicidal “defense only” strategy by the military and political leadership in Kiev and decided to go on the attack (article), amid a weak Russian / local separatists-held frontline east of the city (as most forces were active around Debaltseve). Within 2 days, they recaptured around 120 km² of Ukrainian land and established new fortified positions in a number of towns, some 10-15 east of Mariupol.The below (professional) map gives a good impression of what could be regained and put back under Urainian control during this offensive.

map mariupol1

But the joy was only brief. 5 days later, on February 16, Russian forces started massive attacks on the front, pushing Azov troops out of Shyrokyne and to the town’s eastern outskirts (geolocated) in a first stage of their counterattack. Several days of relative calm followed, but on February 23, their offensive gained pace again, using all kind of weapons – of course – forbidden in the Minsk 2 agreement – and even Russian air force surveillance planes over the occupied territory. The below detailed map shows what was used where and what the initial situation in terms of territorial possession at that time was.

mariupol map 2

Due to the (anti!-)Ukrainian strategy of adhering to the Minsk 1+2 agreements, defending Azov troops could only fight back with small arms and mortars, by far not strong enough to resist the fresh Russian push, executed by forces coming from central Donbas via Telmanove as well as via Novoazovsk and thus directly from Russian army and invasion bases across the border (article). Reports from the Information Resistance group say up to 600 invasion forces stand ready to take part in the offensive as well as dozens of tanks and armored fighting vehicles, not to speak of heavy artillery and MLRS systems.

As a logic consequence of the uneven (allowance to use) force, Ukrainian troops initially had to withdraw from Kominternove and shortly after from Pavlopil and its tiny suburb Pyshchevyk, meaning a loss of some 70% of the territory, Regiment Azov liberated earlier this month. Not even today, as the Ukrainian ministry of internal affairs report the use of Russian army T-72 tanks to attack Regiment Azov positions near Shyrokyne, the Ukrainian army command would give its troops the needed artillery cover. The below map shows the situation as it appears according to all available reports on February 25.

mariupol map 3

However, these – yes – major territorial advances by the Russian side (of some 80 km² returning under their control) are once again whitewashed by the Ukrainian leadership, and even pretended to never have happened. To achieve this, they simply changed the narrative. While NSDC spox Lysenko announced on February 10, that the Ukrainian forces, by the offensive east of Mariupol., were  returning to the agreed on demarcation line in accordance with the Minsk agreement”, he / the leadership seems have changed their mind to keep face and not admit, their “hold the line” strategy once again leads to defeat. Suddenly, towns like Pavlopil and Kominternove (geolocation) turn “buffer zone” areas, where no side is meant to have a permanent presence. Thus, leaving the towns is no Ukainian withdrawal and – and here it becomes ridiculous – Russian forces “might go there, take some pictures and leave again”, but can not control these areas. However, the ATO’s sector M spokesperson Chaly does not say, why the Russian side should have any reason to leave the towns after they recaptured them. Instead, Regiment Azov reports that the settlements are used to stage artillery attacks against them, simply ignoring, they might be “buffer zone” areas …

Last but not least, many people keep asking if Russian forces will attack Mariupol itself and capture it in another step to build a land corridor to (also-)occupied Crimea. There should be doubt about that for the coming weeks at least. While some analysts believe, the Russian army and local separatists might directly attack or bypass and encircle the town, the cost for that move might be massive and possibly too high for both sides, especially taking into account that – different from Debaltseve – here both sides will have a steady streeam of resupplies and reinforcements until cutting the opponent’s supply lines with extreme force. Thus, the more likely scenario in the short term is that Russian forces will try to get back into the comfortable situation of controlling all smaller settlements east of Mariupol, being able to attack military and civilians targets in and around the town like it was the case between September last year and January 2015. Doing this, they would be able to inflict constant smaller casualties on the fixed Ukrainian line of defense, keeping the conflict boiling on a low but steady flame. At the same time, it would enable them to raise the stakes (attack Mariupol itself) whenever their supreme command in Moscow feels to do so, without having to move larger contingents of men and material (more than 5 kilometers).

Finally what we might see during the next weeks and probably months will rather be an offensive towards and not on Mariupol. However, this offensive is already happening as we speak, kept dead quiet by both, the Russian and the Ukrainian government, but painfully felt by mostly volunteer Ukrainian defenders on the ground as well as civilians, coming back under Russian rule or – like so many others – being forces to flee to Mariupol itself or other safer regions in Ukraine.