Six questions answered about the Russian invasion army’s new “air force”

Reports of the establishment of  a Russian invasion army’s air force being the making are circulating since several weeks now, but today (January 18, 2015) Russian news channel “Russia-24” posted first footage of what is described as the “air force of the People’s Republic of Luhansk”. This article answers the main questions about that new air force and assesses its threat to Ukrainian towns and military infrastructure now and in the future.

1. Where is the air force’s base located?

Footage can be traced back the the former training airfield of the Voroshilovgrad Air Navigators Academy, part of the 17th air army of the Soviet Union. The base is located just south east of Luhansk city, some 12 km north of Luhansk’s “new” airport which was entirely destroyed during the Russian invasion in late August and early September.

base location

Base location

The airfield was established in the 1940s and used to train pilots on L-29 until 1967. After that it was used as an air academy, teaching “the art of flying” on the ground. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the academy was operated further by Ukraine until 1997 when it was closed. Since then, the “Luhansk Aerodrome” serves as a military aircraft museum and is officially listed on travel guides into the region. It contains more than 50 planes and helicopters, including small fighter jets up to large Il-76 freighter aircraft. Until recently, details on the museum were available via the official homepage http://avia-museum.lg.ua/ but it is out of order since several months. Now we know why.

museum

Avia museum

2. What airplanes does the air force consist of?

According to Russia-24, the air force consists of “several L-29 trainer aircraft, several Su-25 as well as helicopters of various modifications”. However, footage only shows one seemingly operational L-29 Delfín (NATO reporting name “Maya”), maneuvering on the airfield. It is not seen in the air in the available footage. However, it can be assumed that it is fully operational, seeing its instruments remastered and the entire aircraft in a good shape. At the same time this jet was build between 1961 and 1967 and used until ’67 for training missions at the “Air Navigators Academy”.

Unbenannt

L-29 Delfín

No other planes “in active service” are shown while one interesting report some days before the official publication of the article and footage said one more Su-25 is currently remastered in a hangar of the air field. Furthermore, footage shows the operational L-29 being driven into one of the hangars to save it from the weather (and possibly feared Ukrainian strikes?!).

hangar

No operational helicopters nor attempts to revive them are portrayed in the Russian media footage. So in conclusion it is fair to assume that there is currently only one active aircraft in the air force of the “People’s Republic of Luhansk” with one more being remastered at the moments and possibly ready to fly soon.

3. Has Russia its hands in it?

Of course. Several aspects serve as strong indication for that.

First, the news report claims that there is sufficient “fuel delivered to the airfield” and there is only one source of the needed fuel as neither the “LC” nor the “DNR” has aircraft fuel at its disposal. All possible reserves of it have been used by the Ukrainian air force or destroyed around Donetsk and Luhansk airports in recent fighting.

fuel

Russian fuel, arriving in Luhansk

Second, it is natural that to fly airplanes, you need pilots. The article refers to them as “volunteers who received flight training in the Soviet time”. This clarification is interesting as it raises the question why these pilots have not been active during the last 25 years and what they have done since then. Also the – possibly desired – narrative of “former Ukrainian pilots” or “Ukrainian volunteers” is not used, but the only reference is given to the CCCP. One of the pilots is named as  Aram Avakian, however his origin remains unknown so far.

pilot

pilots

4. Are there any other working air bases in Russian-occupied Donbas?

Yes. On October 8, news appeared that the small Tarasivka air field had been revived by Russian invasion forces. One of the two Yak-52 there-stationed could be seen flying over the field with the first ever message of being “Nororossiya’s new air force”.

yak-52

In occupied Luhansk region, no other smaller air fields are know. A big question mark remains over the official airport of Luhansk, some 20 km south of the city. While latest available satellite pictures show the airport widely destroyed and its runway blocked on August 31, it – if repaired – would be the first choice for Russian reinforcements landing and possible fighter jets departing. However the question of eventual Russian efforts in this regard can not be answered before either new satellite pictures or footage from the area comes up.  At the same time, there are no known airfields operational or aircraft flying over the territory of the Donetsk region, despite the existence of some smaller strips. Donetsk airport remains in the focus of fighting and the runway seems to be badly damaged, making air traffic impossible – even in the case of a real ceasefire – for months, no matter who controls it.

5 How big is the current(!) threat of the Russian invasion army’s air force

Right now, the threat is not that big. If the conclusions from the latest footage are correct, there is curently one Yak-52 and one L-29 operational in the “LC’s” air force, which is not very concerning from a military point of view. Both aircraft are unarmed, so even if Russia would deliver arms to upgrade them, it would need some more work to refurbish them in a way that would make them able to use these weapon systems. Hence, the Russian report’s claim that the currently established “LC” “Air support [is] a very important thing.” can be regarded as an empty phrase.

6. How is the prospect?

However this “low risk assessment” for the very current situation can change within hours or days and the foundation of a dangerous – fit for fatal action – air force was already or is being established at the very moment. Russian invaders’ would not publish news of such crucial development if they didn’t know how to use and exploit them.

At the one hand, the Russian army was – with very few exceptions – not willing to deploy its own air force inside Ukraine or supply “rebels” (its invasion forces) with used fighter jets or helicopters like the Mil Mi-24 which would make a big advantage for them in the battle for Donbas.

At the other hand, the current report opens all doors for such support in the future. The Russia-24 article mentions at very first “The [50+ year old] runway is cleared”, being available for landings and take offs from now on. This is a sign for possible outside help, being expected at any point in the future. Moreover, the article – and the “militants” at the base – claim that “several” Su-25 are made over right now. True or not, this claim lays the foundation of Su-25 indeed popping up at the now active air base at some point, either really refurbished or driven in by trucks from Russia in parts and being fully assembled at the base. Under this pretext another possibility is that Russian air force aircraft will simply invade from Russian bases, now that th “LC” has an air force, and attack Ukrainian targets, disguised as the “LC air force”. These Sukhoi ground attack fighter jets – if present at the base as already announced today – would be a real challenge and a possible game changer in the war for Donbas. Therefore today’s announcement of the “establishment of the Luhansk People’s Republic air force” should be taken as seriously as possible and military consequences for such appearance in the near future should be drawn already today.

The inevitable – Russian troops enter the last Ukrainian stronghold at Donetsk airport

“The situation is under control” –  this phrase was used by the Ukrainian government/army:

in September when the attack began and Russian forces took all hangar buildings,

in October, when they seized Terminal 2 for several times,

in November, when Russian shelling and destruction mounted,

in December, when Terminal 2 were handed over to the invasion army peacefully and Russians took up perfect offensive positions beside Terminal 1,

on January 5 when Ukrainian intelligence services announced fresh  Russian army formations arrived to surround and take the airport as the top priority,

on January 12, when new Russian ground forces showed up in Terminal 2, announcing to do exactly that,

on January 13, when the badly damaged tower collapsed under intense artillery and tank fire in the morning and Ukrainian troops stopped a first Chechen infantry push in the basement of the last Ukrainian-held terminal in the evening

AND on January 15 – today – when Russian invasion forces finally stormed the terminal and are fighting Ukrainian troops inside it since 7 hours now.

The situation is NOT under control. It is out of control since the Minsk agreement, which has NEVER been a mutual ceasefire as agreed on, but always an unilateral truce, only adhered to by the Ukrainian side. Nobody should be surprised now. Russian invasion forces didn’t attack Terminal 1 by surprise, they advance since 5 months. Every month. Steadily and without major setbacks. This development was observed and well-documented by dozens of analysts and – of course – also by the Ukrainian army, which lost its freedom of movement / building after building / man after man in the area of the airport since September last year. However for a reason that can only be called deliberate blind appeasement policy, the Ukrainian leadership decided to let Russian forces advance over a period of about 130 days, pretending “the situation is under control”, which now should be clear to everyone, it is not.

At the same time, president Poroshenko connected the defense of the airport inseparable with the defense of entire Ukraine, saying December 5 that the defense of Donetsk airport actually is the defense of Kiev and Lviv. Losing the airport means losing Ukraine. Knowing this, it is even less understandable why he accepted the Russian advance for the last 5 months, without implementing any forceful countermeasure.

So his afternoon, the inevitable happened. Under intense tank fire from Spartak and Vesele plus artillery and mortar support from all across Donetsk city and Makeevka, Russian infantry forces stormed the ground floor of Terminal 1, coming from nearby Terminal 2. Remember that this 50 meters away building was transferred from Ukrainian to Russian troops peacafully in early December as it was allegedly “destroyed and not usable as a strategic position” anymore. Another misjudgment, obviously.

old new

Russian troops, walking from the old into the new terminal without resistance.

While the actual attack was not caught on camera, Russian TV published first images shortly after, showing its forces controlled practically the entire second floor of Terminal 1, offering views into all four cardinal directions. Parts of the apron, the car park, the destroyed tower and Terminal 2 are clearly visible in the footage as can be seen below. At the same time, Ukrainian forces in or near the airport reported they also fought invasion units of “battalion size” (so more than 300 soldiers) that entered the basement and the 3rd floor. Indeed Russian TV footage showed them changing levels inside the terminal, looking all across the large entrance hall of the terminal and firing up and down stairs within the building. Last but not least to enter the 2nd floor as the Ukrainian government confirmed, they must have passed the ground floor and 1st floor at some point. So in conclusion it is fair to say, battles between Ukrainian forces and Russian invaders took place all across Terminal 1 at the afternoon of January 15.

all directions

Views to all sides

 

But Russian troops were not just inside the Terminal. The nearest possible Ukrainian defense position is located at the ruins of the tower buildings, some 870 meters to the west. Russian tanks and ground troops moved all along south of Terminal 1, passing it and coming in a position to fire at the remains of the tower from that range. This way, they could cut Ukrainian reinforcements from Pisky and the tower – at least for a while.

tower

Russian T-64, firing at the tower ruins.

 

At 21:00 that day, one of the defenders announced via Facebook that over the afternoon and evening they were able to “take up positions in all floors” again with the help of arriving reinforcements. Moreover artillery ran off the attacking tanks and they could evacuate their dead and wounded (at least 2 KIA, 7 WIA). However the message included the famous phrase that should cause everybody to be terrified of the next days: “The situation is under control.”*

 

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* respectively: “The situation is more or less stabilized.”

A deadly chain reaction – making sense of the Volnovakha bus massacre

In the early afternoon hours of January 13, one of the most deadly single incidents during the Russian aggression in southern and eastern Ukraine hit a bus near a police / border guards checkpoint at the northern outskirts of the Ukrainian city of Volnovakha.

Shortly after the tragedy, a (graphic!) video appeared on YouTube, being widely assumed as the main evidence to find out, what happened to the bus and – the main question – who caused that massacre on innocent civilians. However, different versions of sense making appeared, seemingly contradicting each other. One of a Russian-fired missile or artillery round, hitting the area around the checkpoint and causing the carnage, published by pro-Ukrainian analysts; one of an Ukrainian mine, hitting the bus, leading to the senseless deaths; published by pro-Russian activists. Since then the two factions are confronting each other with their evidence, blaming the other side of lying. This short article argues that both are partly right and there is common ground between them, explaining the massacre.

Within a couple of hours, interpretermag published a report, convincingly illustrating that a rocket or artillery round, fired from the Russian-held Dokuchajevsk area to the north east, hit just right of the bus, causing the disaster (image below). Both the impact crater and the damage on the ground support this argument, which can not be refuted.

version1

Source: The Interpreter, analysis by Dajey Petros

Shortly after, a pro-Russian side published a report based on the same video, pointing out that the bus was very close to an Ukrainian mine field, an Ukrainian soldier could be seen, carrying and anti-personal mine just outside the bus and typical fragments of an Ukrainian-used MON-50 mine could be seen between the blood of the victims inside the hit vehicle (images below). The three aspects, despite not supporting the official Ukrainian version of the events, must be taken into account, trying to understand what caused the bloodbath.

Making sense of it all: From a fact-based analytical perspective, all surrounding circumstances must be considered, no matter of the political alignment. In this regard, both version are supported by facts and no obvious manipulation can be seen from my understanding. Hence the question arises, if both version are true and a combination of different fatal weapons – used by Russian invaders and placed by Ukrainian defenders – led to the deaths of 13 innocent people with several more still fighting for their lives in hospitals.

From all available data (video footage only, not statements by either side), it appears that the Russian-fired impacting shell hit the mine field to the right side of the bus, triggering a chain reaction by causing one or more of the there-put MON-50 to explode. Not in the intended direction – away from the street – but due to the impact power right towards the passing by bus, causing a catastrophe. Thus, BOTH, fragments of the Grad missile / artillery round AND of the thrown-up mines hit the bus in a totally uncontrolled manner, causing the visible damage, which could be seen in the aftermath footage. The subsequent analytical display portrays what could have happened within seconds yesterday afternoon, leading to imminent mass casualties. This conclusion seems most convincing as it includes all available evidence from the scene.

missile+mine

Source: own creation, based on Bing Maps

So who is to blame? The answer is obvious: The Russian side. They fired towards the checkpoint, knowingly that civilian vehicles would be queueing there, waiting to be checked before leaving / entering Volnovakha. By firing at the Ukrainian government checkpoint, they approved civilian casualties, once again showing their total disrespect for innocent human life and the “rules of war”.

At the same time, it must be concluded that the Ukrainian side unnecessarily tried to cover up that not only an incoming projectile, but mainly the accidentally triggered MON-50 mines (caused by the intentionally fired shell of course!) hit the chassis of the passing bus, causing 13 deaths. Ukrainian troops removed some of the mines – also simply to be safe during the rescue and recovery operation – and the Ukrainian government version doesn’t mention any mines involved in the tragedy. This behavior is – as I said – absolutely unnecessary and contraproductive as it produces doubt about the version where all moral arguments about the blame are on the Ukrainian side.

In conclusion, what we saw yesterday was another unprovoked act of violence vs. civilians by Russian terrorist and army forces, willing to advance at any cost. The Volnovakha bus massacre was caused by its deliberate actions vs. Ukrainian-held territory, leading to a deadly chain of reactions which killed 12 more Ukrainians in the Russian-led war.

Update #1

As many experts argue, I am wrong with my analysis, I took another look at the only known Grad impact location in the field and the location and external damage at the bus at this time. The missile impacted at least 10 meters from the bus, hitting deep into the snow with most of its energy. I see no chance, it caused the visible damage at the bus and plus 12 deaths inside it. There must have been secondary blasts, caused by triggered / hurled up mines, to cause such damage and casualty picture.

Unbenannt

bus-impact distance

PS: In the end, I can not say, which kind of mines were placed in the field, MON-50 or – maybe more convincing – other sorts of contact mines. However what I can say is that the official version (one Grad missile hit) does not add up.

Update #2

Meanwhile, more footage appeared and I did some more analyzing of the already known material.

At first, I took another look at the impact site yesterday. If the Grad missile really hit the area from an N-NE angle – and nobody doubts that – its main force should have gone to the S-SW. The impact area confirms this and shows that  most of the snow was burned in that direction, indicating that also most of the impact and explosive energy of the missile must have been directed towards this angle (picture below).

angle

impact direction towards S-SW

At the same time, the bus is located 7-10 meters to the N-E of the impact crater and only little snow is burned in that direction before and after the little mound on the side of the street. So IF the buse was hit by the main force of the missile, which would have been necessary to cause such carnage, it should have been some more meters down the road to directly “drive into” the main blast direction. A look at its front shows that this is not the case.

front

undamaged bus front

Thus, it must be assumed that the bus stood exactly where it was filmed when it was hit, so to the right of the main blast energy of the impacting Grad. A last look at the bus illustrates that the damage is not the same all over, but different zones show a different degree of external damage (image below). The “what cause what” mark is just an estimate of course. The main point is that such damage is very unusual for being caused by a Grad that hit a snowy field, 7-10 meters in a 90° angle to its impact. It is almost unthinkable that 20+ people got killed and injured by the Grad blast. The tree shows also blast damage, which could well be from the exploding missile. However this tree is only 1-2 meters away from the impact site, while the buse is located further away. In conclusion: It remains hard to believe the missile alone caused 12 deaths inside the bus, despite exploding too far away and not being “directed” towards the affected bus.

bus tree

bus damage

Last but not least, a video appeared, showing the Grad attack on the checkpoint that caused the deaths. Althoug the camera is directed towards the north and only captures the shadow of he bus blast, it contains an interesting detail. The missiles that hit nearest to the base – also close to the street and near the trees – possibly caused the same as what I am pointing to on the other side of the base, namely a secondary blast by a mine, located close to where the missile hit. While all other missiles – also impacting in the middle of the street – caused dark shallow smoke, this one caused a bright flash up in the trees accompanied by upgoing white smoke in addition to the black one. Althoug the images are blurry and no final conlusions can be drawn, this could be the precedent that makes my interpretation of the events yet a bit more likely.other blasts

All according to plan – Russia’s winter war was foreseeable

Many analysts an – much worse – seemingly also the Ukrainian government were surprised by the recent surge in violence in eastern Ukraine while most western media branches have not even noticed that Russia took its war against Ukraine to a new level with an unprecedented “increase in number and intensity of attacks” (the Ukr army).

Several number confirm that observation. While the first shaky weeks of the Minsk “ceasefire” in September saw between 30 and 40 attacks per day, that number reduced to around 10 (/day) in November and December last year. First analysts thought president Poroshenko’s appeasement policy towards Russia bore fruit, but during the first week of January, the Ukrainian army recorded once again around 40 attacks per day. This number increased more and more, reaching 50 and stands at more than 60 per day right now.

Another indication of the recent surge in anti-Ukrainian military violence is the number of Ukrainian army casualties. On December 9 2014, Petro Poroshenko proudly announced that the last 24 hours had seen not a single Ukrainian army casualty, seemingly supporting his “We stop shooting, they will follow” policy. But things turned out to be developing in the utter opposite direction. A new Russian offensive, starting on New Year’s day 14/15 brought more than a hundred Ukrainian military casualties, with the 48 hours from January 8 to 10 resulting in 34 dead in injured only to have just one example.

During the last days, the number of attacks became simply too high to count and the incidents are impossible to distinguish from each other, though, I tried as this “one-evening-MLRS-target-map” from the northern Luhansk front shows.

northernfront

Russian MLRS and artillery attacks on the eve of January 11

Instead the entire Ukrainian front in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions is under intense attack of all kinds of weapons, mainly heavy ones like tank, heavy artillery, Grad missiles and even BM-27 Uragan, which are might MLRS with a highly destructive potential. In one word, what we see since the last 2 weeks is not just an “extreme deterioration of the situation”, but war, simple as that.

But was this development really so unforeseeable?

At least two facts, one clearly visible, one invisible until very recently, show that this is nothing of the sort of a “sudden rise in violence” or an “unexpected flare in attacks” like many experts want to make us believe. Instead, I argue, this whole process goes exactly according to a precisely scheduled plan by the warmongers in the Kremlin, which are not at their target situation in Ukraine yet.

1. The obvious prologue

Everybody could see the influx of tens of thousands of Russian “volunteers” (paid mercenaries) and army personal. This did not happen during the last 2 or 4 weeks or under any serious cover, but at since late October and in brought daylight.

In late October, the first some hundred “little green men” showed up in Donetsk city, widely reflected by the online community and the Russian mainstream media.

donetsk

At November 1 for example, hundreds of – obvious – Russian troops with modern equipment showed up in Luhansk, parading through the city and openly declaring it under their control from then on (picture). These troops were strenghtened and spread throughout other cities, for example Krasnyi Luch where they showed up on December 12 with an even larger military parade.

luhansk

Shortly after on November 10, more heavy Russian army armor – T-72B1 – showed up on the streets of Donetsk, at a time, the Minsk agreement demanded “pro-Russian forces” to withdraw exactly these weapons from the buffer zone.

tanks

There are many more examples, also from as early as September when a 100+ Russian army KamAZ and heavy artillery convoy reached Donetsk city over several days. One more example is to be called as it seemed so unreal at this point that most analysts just went over it. In late November, an entire (Russian) army under the flag of “Novorossiya” and marked with Soviet CCCP signs waited at Ukraine’s eastern border – inside Russia!! – ready to invade. It obviously did shortly after.

cccp

In conclusion, no one could say in early December that Russia had not literally shouted, “We prepare for war inside Ukraine!” while some optimists – like me – still had another theory, seeing the invasion of thousands of Russian troops bright-eyed. But this hope – that Russia sent regular soldiers to calm down the situation and stop “rogue” militias from attacking Ukrainian soil  – was dead wrong. It sent them to control each and every anti-Ukrainian fighter, match them to one force under one command and be more fit for the decisive battle which would start 2 months later.

2. The invisible prologue

Analyzing the military hardware inside the Russian invasion base in Russia’s Rostov region, there was one thing that puzzled me for several days. Between the different battle groups were a number of white spots, which I found hard to identify for quite some time (picture below, exact position on a map).

winter

First, I thought those were tents as they have the same color as them of them inside the base, but a second look confirmed, those are army vehicles. After several discussions with other analysts, we still had no real clue. Neither the idea that those were the “aid convoy” trucks nor “MC – Russian peacekeeping” vehicles was quite convincing. The aid trucks enter Ukraine officially and don’t have to “hide” at such – formerly semi-secret – base and Russia – after some public mulling – decided to not play the MC (“peacekeeping”) card in Ukraine. Then finally, the bitter truth filtered through.

After @DajeyPetros spot and my analysis of the Russian invasion base, I read an article by the AAAS, confirming the base was established around March 2014 – a date, I could not confirm as I just knew, it was developed after October 2013. At this time – 5 months before the Russian army invasion in Eastern Ukraine in late August – thousands of troops and hundreds of weapon systems were prepared to be deployed inside the neighboring country – all according to a much larger plan and while the world looked at Crimea.

So for what could these white vehicles – 90% sure BMP and BTR  – be positioned there in October (the date of the satellite image) or even earlier?! … WINTER WAR!

And guess, what showed up shortly after – far too earlier, because long before prepared and not prepared for a late-starting winter – in Luhansk and Donetsk regions?! Correct. White-colored BTR and BMP. Moscow planned its escalating – or at least at no point cutting back – winter offensive inside Ukraine far in advance, probably just after the August offensive, in any case well before October 2014

bmp

left: BMP-2 in Donetsk, right: BTR-80 in Luhansk

What does all this tell us? What we see is sufficient evidence that Russia never had the plan to halt aggressive operations in eastern Ukraine – especially not this winter, which will probably hold for the next 2 months in Donbas. Its offensive capacities in manpower and equipment were very openly built up during the last 3 months all across the occupied territory and the base satellite images reveal that it planned what it did in March for August and in October for January – now. What we see in eastern Ukraine is nothing like “sudden” or “unexpected” developments, but an escalation of warfare and offensive operations within the plot of a master plan. It is going all according to Kremlin’s plan, developed long ago and – at least 50% – announced to Ukraine and the world since October 2014 at latest. Saying, we are “surprised” now shows either very limited foresight or dishonestly to itself and its people.

Making sense of the latest Russian offensives in eastern Ukraine

This morning, the Ukrainian army reported that the number of Russian invasion forces attacks “over the last day” stood at 50 in total. Such a figure was not reached since the Minsk agreement took effect in early September last year. 4 Ukrainian soldiers were killed during these 24 hours, and another 8 injured. At the same time, 2 civilians were killed and 8 injured in Donetsk city due to shelling over the same period of time, according to the city administration.

While over the last 4 months of the Minsk “ceasefire” and the Ukrainian-called in “silence mode” from December 9, the number of daily Russian attacks never fell below 5 and in average stood at 10-20 per day, 50 is a new peak and the final proof that the current appeasement policy by the Ukrainian government, namely the September 5 and 19 “truce” and the December 9 “silence mode”, are not working. However beyond that doubtless admission, the question arises, what the strategical aim of these attacks could be and why Russia is willing to turn up the heat again despite the fact, its territorial gains inside Ukraine are not challenged and it could consider itself satisfied with the strip of land, it has brought under its control so far.

A – meanwhile – good indicator for the daily spatial allocation of the Russian aggression is the situation map, published with daily updates by the Ukrainian defense ministry. After months of showing a far too “optimistic” picture, it is now quite accurately filled with most recent information and, despite missing some attacks, a good foundation for a more detailed analysis.

This is today’s map:

map_8.1.

ATO map, showling the situation in the Donbas between January 8 and 9

At a first glance, the large number of “locations of combat” – indicated by the small orange explosions – along the front strikes the eye. While an exact count of those little “blast” symbols is not possible, it is fair to say, that their number is well below 50, showing the difficulty that comes with such sources. However what can be seen is that those symbols indicating fighting are ranged along the border between the Russian-held and the “liberated” Ukrainian territory with some dots being further inland, signaling long distance weapons fire.

The following map is an – informed – strategic assessment of those “locations of combat” (also known as “Russian assault target areas”), dividing the entire territory into four combat zones. Doing this, it becomes possible to make sense of these dozens of attacks, assigning them to possible mid- and long term in strategic goals of the Russian invasion army. What becomes visible are four main theaters starting with the “Kalmius offensive” in the south, the “Donetsk airport campaign” in the west, operation “Closing the gap” in the center and the “Northern expansion” in the north. These four offensives will be discussed in the following paragraphs, trying to understand what could be Russia’s purpose by leading them.

Map

ATO zone, devided into Russian campaigns, January 8-9

The Kalmius offensive

After invading southern Donetsk region in late summer last year, Russian forces quickly advanced via Novoazovask and Telmanove towards the west. Not the Ukrainian army, but a natural barrier, the river Kalmius slowed down their advance, giving retreating Ukrainian security forces the time they needed to build a line of defense -behind the river. Between September an December 2014, Russian forces mainly attacked the towns and villages east and north east of Mariupol, but only very rarely the wide strip of land between the coastal town and Starobasheve.

 

kalmius

The Kalmius river attack area

This changed on January 3rd, when Russian invasion forces started using heavy weapons like artillery, tanks and multi launch rocket systems to launch attacks on several towns right along the river as well as Ukr-held towns and villages behind it, serving as resupply bases or simply resting areas for Ukrainian troops – and homes to thousands of civilians. These attacks intensified over the last week, expanding not only to indirect fire, but also to actual crossings of the river and attemps to flank Ukrainian troops, taking Hranitne, one of the few towns with a bridge across the Kalmius. Several Russian troops were killed during these attempts. Nonetheless, during the last 2 days, this offensive was even intensified with a double-digit number of attacks between January 8 and 9.

 

Attacking the Kalmius river (Minsk demarcation line) on the entire front bears several strategic advantages for an invasion army, not feeling bound to any signed treaties. During August and September 2014, it attempted to directly attack Mariupol, which didn’t work due to a strong buildup in Ukrainian army and National Guard troops. Later, they tried to bypass the city with the aim to encircle it, some 5-10 km north. This also miscarried. By broadening the active front line by around 60 km, Ukrainian defenders are forced to stretch thin, trying to halt any possible crossing of the river along the sparsely inhabited riverside. This is of particular importance as we are in the middle of winter and the river may freeze, allowing troops and vehicles to cross it without the need of a bridge. The riverside was until a few days ago only guarded by scattered Regiment Azov National Guard troops, being equipped with mostly light vehicles like jeeps and small arms with a few heavier weapons like T-64 tanks or ATGM to defend against attacking armored vehicles. Furthermore, the Kalmius river frontline is one of the closest to the Russian border and the main invasion hub, making it easy to resupply advancing forces from inside Russia. If Russian forces manage to push back Ukrainian defenders at only one sector of the river front, they will be able to establish bridgeheads on the left side of it, being able to directly attack cities like Mariupol or Volnovakha, which might be the final aim in this region.

 

The Donetsk airport campaign

It is no secret that Russian forces seek to entirely control Donetks airport which must feel like a sting in their meat, being a – hypothetical – direct port for attacks on the DNR’s wannabe capital Donetsk. Thus, this front was always one of the most active, also and especially during the almost 4 months of the Minsk ceasefire farce. Until December 9, Ukrainian forces defended like lions, firing back with all kinds of weapons at Russian attackers and killing up to 500 of them within a few weeks (maybe even more between late August and early December).

close Donetsk

However then president Poroshenko decided to forbid his forces returning fire “until their lives were in acute risk” and Russian forces established launching grounds for attacks all around – and not more than 50 meters from Terminal 1 and the Tower, which are today the only installations held by the so-called “Cyborgs”, the defenders of the area. Still, all attempts by the invader to directly attack the terminal complex were fought back with huge casualties on the Russian side. This fact plus the circumstance that attacking forces are now too close to the target to use heavy weapons against it led to a final change of mind pincer movewith the attackers, deciding during the last 7 days not to cut the airport from the Ukrainian-held territory anymore but the territory from the airport, encircling it in a wide curve, forcing – then – besieged forces to surrender as for the lack of food and ammunition. Similar tactics were used successfully in Saur Mohyla and Ilovaisk in late August last year. On January 5, the Ukrainian intelligence service voiced exactly that concern, namely that a pincer movement by Russian invasion forces from Spartak and Donetsk’s Kuibyshivs’kyi district is in the planning and would have the price of the entire airport.

northern donetskSuch move has to be prepared, taking into account that strong Ukrainian army formations are positioned all to the north, north west and west of the airport. So Russian army artillery and missile troops started shelling not some but literally all Ukrainian held towns and villages in the three cardinal directions of the airport. As the ATO map is not able to show such concentration of fire in a meaningful way, I developed a map with the exact targets according to the Ukrainian army reports.

Thanks to the RT cam, live footage of the shelling can be seen and heard day and night, week for week, month for month. After realizing that a direct assault would be impossible and the Ukrainian-given period of time to gain strength, Russian forces seem now self-confident enough to prepare for a much wider offensive, not only trying to invade the airport, but all the Ukrainian-held front line towns around it.

 

Operation “Closing the gap”
debaltseveThe Ukrainian-held area leading to the important railway knot city of Debaltseve not only looks like a cut into the “self- or rather: Moscow-declared people’s republics of Luhansk and Donetsk”, it also feels like one for the both regimes and their Russian masters. At the same time, it is an obstacle in logistical terms for invasion forces, wishing to move freely between Luhansk and Donetsk city. Thus, it is a declared goal by the Russian occupation command to close that gap, if not by negotiations (as was hoped for in mid September), then by force. This target was never given up during the “ceasefire” and there was not one day without attacks on front line villages like Nikishyne. However rare footage from the area (by Graham Phillips) showed some rather poorly-equipped Russian and pro-Russian infantry troops, not being able for major offensive operations in October and November. Now, Russian forces use large caliber weapon systems like Grad missiles and even tanks, especially over the last 48 hours. This indicates, they move from “provoking” Ukrainian forces holding that front to rather serious offensive operations, possibly resulting in territorial gains and the ability to directly attack Debaltseve itself.

 

Northern expansion

northern luhanskLast but not least, Luhansk region remains another hot spot of Russian invasion ambitions. During the first months of the “ceasefire”, the area along the Bakhmutka highway (M04), leading from occupied Luhansk to liberated Lisiciansk was one of the most active zones of confrontation. “Russian Cossack” terrorist troops felt – seemingly against all agreements as they received multiple heavy weapons to invade Ukraine – not bound to any orders from Moscow anymore and attacked at will, capturing “Checkpoint 32” and Smile in late October, taking more than 100 km² of Ukraine. However after this, troubles grew between those forces and the Moscow-loyal “LC (Luhansk Poeple’s Republic)” regime, resulting in battles against each other and a lull in fighting the Ukrainian army. Ultimately the most rebellious Russian commanders were either killed (January 2) or forced to return to their homeland (January 5) and the Russian army took control of all fighting forces in the area. Since then, the front is even more active and dangerous with a Russian invasion army, willing to recapture the earlier-lost territories around Severodonetsk and Rubizhne in the north west as well as Stanitsa Luhanska in the east. Especially this area would Russia give more kilometers of direct border line between its mainland and the invaded territories inside Ukraine, being a win-win situation in its perspective.

 

In conclusion it is simply a fact that shortly after the observed and confirmed reports of rotation and replacement of former paid mercenary forces with regular Russian army troops all across the occupied territories of Donbas, attacks on Ukrainian positions and towns as well as their deadliness have sharply increased. After those 50 attacks being shown in the map used for this analysis which took place between January 8 and 9, the following 12 hours brought another 24 attacks on Ukrainian forces, indicating that there won’t be any let up in the near future.

Russia definitely has once again turned up the heat and increases its efforts to control even larger parts of Ukraine, willing to conquer those in a brutal and way which is against international law and against all its promises to at least calm down the situation or even better withdraw its forces from Ukraine.

On the Ukrainian side – and I know, this sounds like a broken record, actions must be taken now to spoil Russia’s appetite for more Ukrainian land by letting them pay for every square meter they attack as much as possible. This might be the only way to lead it to a major decision: “Blink” once again like in the end of August and being punished with more international sanctions .. or finally come to its senses and stop its obvious efforts to illegally capture more soil of its western neighbor.

One base to rule them all – five facts you should know about Russia’s main invasion hub

On January 6, spotted that the latest updated Google Earth satellite images revealed / included the base, many people knew about, but nobody could ever locate due to Russian army security measure to not leak meaningful footage of it and the lack of recent satellite footage from the area.

The Russian invasion, that started in April 2014 and continues to that very day includes hundreds of tanks, apcs, MLRS and other vehicles as well as thousands of shells, missiles and last but not least tens of thousands of Russian army personal as well as Russian army-trained “volunteers” or rather paid mercenaries / invasion troops. Such invasion can not be planned and organized from Moscow alone or via regular army bases, which are either too far away from the Ukrainian border or by far not large enough to handle the logistics necessary for such an operation. It needs (at least) one major logistical military hub. This hub was revealed by the latest Google Earth satellite image update.

The following article answers 5 questions, you should know about when talking about that base in particular and the sophistication and organized malice of the Russian policy towards Ukraine in general.

 

1. Where is the base?

The base is located in a strategically brilliant position. 23 km north east of Taganrog and 30 km north west of Rostov-on-Don, it is in close range of several major Russian army hubs, including military bases, airports but also civilian supply structures for the daily life of the thousands of troops inside the base.

rostov taganrog

Strategic position in Russia

However, the major significance of the localization of the base appears, when we look at it in relation to the deployment zone in Ukraine. From the very south to the very north of the today mostly-occupied areas in Donbas, namely the centers of Mariupol, Donetsk and Luhansk, the distance is almost exactly 130 km, meaning an offensive- as well as quick reaction potential at all sectors of the front within the same period of time. At the same time, the base if 48km from the nearest Ukrainian border point, giving it a “safety distance” to possible counter attacks.

ukraine-base

Strategic position in relation to Ukraine — map source: Ukr. ATO

 

2. How large is the base?

It is HUGE … The north-south expansion of the base is exactly 6.5 kilometers, so 4 miles. There are several concentrations of buildings, tents and vehicles all along that axis. The east-west expansion depends on what you regard as being a “military base”. In a width of 600 meters, we have the hard infrastructure of the base, again including buildings and vehicles plus positioned artillery pieces and much more (for more, read 4.). In a width of 2 kilometers, we can see extensive tracks, probably from intense training exercises and scattered current and former structures, which were used as forward positions and observation points. In its total width of 6.5 km, there are multiple craters visible, likely from artillery and tank shelling.

So in conclusion, we have a built up infrastructure area of 4 km², a vehicle training ground of 10 km² and a firing range of another 30 km². Adding all this to a coherent military installation, we find an area of some 40 km² which as an example is 4 times bigger than the airport of London Heathrow.

base perimeters

Dimensions of the base

 

3. When was the base established?

The area in question was last scanned by available satellites in October 2013, so 4 months before the Russian invasion of Crimea started and half a year, before Donbas was for the first time attacked and occupied by Russian forces. At images from that time, nothing is to see that would indicate the soon emergence of a large military complex or only a new road or farm on the concerned field. One year later, a complex military installation exists at this large field. So given the fact, it would need at least 1-2 months to build the entire infrastructure (including fixed buildings), the date of the base formation could be in August 2014.

2013-2014

Comparison Left: October 2013; Right: October 2014

But there are hints, indicating an even earlier start of construction and use. Between the developed parts of the base, large areas with former formations can be seen. What happened to the units in these areas? They were either given up, moved to another – the current – October 2014 location OR – which is the most likely version – were completely deployed as invasion army battle groups to Ukraine. Three examples are given below. Again: Remember that all these major installations were built up and removed between October 2013 and October 2014.

old fields

former battle group positions inside the base

Taking into account that it took also 1-2 months to build these developments and another few weeks to remove them once again, it must be concluded that the base was built up and used at least since June 2014, possibly even earlier. This would mean that all escalation, especially the one from late August, costing over 1000 Ukrainian troops their lives, was planned long before, showing that Russia had plans for a major escalation even before the Ukrainian army moved into the mostly unarmed separatist-held cities in early summer last year. It also shows that after annexing Crimea, Russia never planned to rethink its policies and lied all along, claiming it was finished with its expansionism inside Ukraine.

 

4. Which military hardware is inside the base?

In brief: All it needs to lead a war and all, we saw and see entering Ukraine from Russia.

There are several concentrations of Russian army vehicles of the same type all across the outlined base parameters. However, we are talking about commercially detailed satellite images, so there is it is possible for experts to identify the general model of a weapon system, but not to distinguish between different versions of it (like BTR-70 or BTR-80). Nonetheless, I have identified groups of KamAZ and Ural trucks, BMP-1/ BMP-2, BTR-70/BTR-80, MT-LB, MT-LBu, Msta-S and Msta-B, BM-21/27/30 and last but not least T-64/T-72. The following image is only one example of one battle group, being stationed at the base.

vehicles

Weapon systems

The next image seems extremely interesting as it shows several multy launch rocket systems, but also something, which looks like sophisticated air defense systems, possibly the SA-10 “Grumble”. However, this can not be said for sure as we are talking about satellite images with a maximum resolution of maybe 1 meter large objects.

bm-21

MLRS plus AA systems?!

Summarizing the vehicles and weapons systems at the front it can – once again – be excluded – that this is any kind of regular or defensive military installation. It houses – as I said before – battle groups, ready to be deployed as punchy forces in a neighboring country, leading to the last question.

 

5. What is the main purpose of the base?

While such question could (or even should) not be answered out of the blue, the first four points of this analytic article qualified it for an informed answer. Looking at the position, size, age and equipment of the base, only one conclusion is possible: This is the one base to rule them all. It was established and still is operated for one reason: To keep the invasion and ongoing occupation of neighboring Ukraine running.

Its current and former visiting forces suggest the assumption that it is BOTH a RF armed forces-led training ground for “voluntary”–> paid Russian invasion forces and the small number of real Ukrainian separatists where they can learn / refresh their driving and firing skills before going to war AND a “traditional” Russian army base, serving as a bridgehead for all major offensive operations and a backup- and retreat area for resupplies and reinforcements. Just today, the Ukrainian defense minister said that 7.500 Russian army troops are serving in Ukraine at the moment, being constantly rotated with their entire equipment. Now we know to / from where and that fresh battle groups are always waiting to be deployed.

All in all, the – at some point inevitable – revelation of this large key base is another reminder that Russia is not hiding its efforts in its war on Ukraine anymore and probably never did. It is also a reminder that the mainstream media and most Western – and Ukrainian! – politicians are painting an entirely wrong picture of the situation. We are not facing a “covert war”, nor have there ever been “Russian-backed rebels” in Ukraine. What we see since almost 11 months is an aggressive war by the Russian Federation vs. the sovereign state of Ukraine, with all organisation and logistics such war necessarily needs.

 

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Covering the war in Syria – thoughts on the latest snowfall

Even for an observer, covering the war in Syria for the fourth winter now, it was an odd, new and strangely also beautiful thing to see what a layer of thick, wet snow brought to the south of the country today.

Despite reports of the first refugees in- and outside Syria freezing to death due to the unusually cold weather in the region, fighting at all fronts from Daraa up to the capital region Rif Dimashq  came to a sudden halt today as for the same reason.

The town of Inkhil, – “Angel” in English – which saw hundreds of Assad air force raids and thousands of deaths caused by them looked peaceful in dense snowfall today, as did other cities like usually embattled Shayk Maskin.

inkhil

Inkhil

Also in the Damascus area of Jobar, which is one of the hardest and most destructive battles in southern Syria, raging at the same place for 40 months now, no air raids and only very few artillery strikes and direct encounters were reported today. Syrian rebels – no. no “islamist extremists, but people, defending their homes against the murderous Assad regime – used the unexpected lull for a little snowball fight, enjoying the short period of relaxation.

jobar

Jobar

And last but not least, children – the most innocent victims of the war in Syria, entering its 5th year now – used the “white miracle” for some fun or at least distraction, however under different preconditions… The upper part of the picture shows children playing in the snow with their parents in the Assad regime-held part of Damascus. Children which seem for some reason – sectarian belonging, allegiance of their parents or just the geographic location of their homes – more worthy to live for the dictator than other.

The lower part of the picture shows children living 5 km north east of Damascus in the suburb Duma. For the same reasons as called above, those children are not worth living for the Syrian dictator, forcing them to live in shelters and having lost most of their relatives and friends during the last four and a half years.

kids

Damascus and Duma

Worlds apart, some living in relative calm and security, others in the middle of the horrors of Assad’s war, a look into the faces of ALL of these children shows their happiness with the situation in that very moment, no matter what.

Realizing this, every human person must see the senselessness and absurdity of this war and armed conflict affecting innocents in general. Children are children, not more or less worthy lives, just because of their ethnicity, belief or the political alignment of their parents. It is simple as that. Every emphatic person should understand that and every government believing in children –> human rights, should do everything in its power to protect children from a regime or entity that decides about life or death by such distinctions.

Coming back to the initial situation of this little as optimistic as possible article on Syria it remains to say that it is a good feeling that – even in Syria – at least the weather in general and snowfall in particular do not distinguish between humans and – at least for a short period of time – brought peace to some of the most affected of the war in Syria.

However snowfall will end and after that, it is once again up to the global community to stop that war by all available means.

The Russian invasion continues – latest military developments in Ukraine

Today on the 4th of January 2015, we are 27 days into the Ukrainian government’s latest initiative of the “silent mode” – the latest additional appeasement measure after the “Minsk agreement” from September last year. Still, there is no visible let up in Russian attacks on the front line all across occupied Donbas, reaching from southern Mariupol until Stanitsia Luhanska on the north eastern end of the new de facto border between Russia and Ukraine. The number of daily Russian attacks on Ukrainian held towns and military positions slightly decreased from approximately 40-50 a day to now 20-30, however this is rather due to the fact that Russian forces now decide when and where to hit, being able to concentrate their forces on the target areas, not being afraid anymore of Ukrainian counterattacks or even return fire after their assaults. Just during the first 4 days of 2015, Ukraine saw 2 civilians and 1 soldier killed in fighting, while at least 7 civilians and 12 more Ukrainian troops were injured. Hot spots of the fighting remain the same as before December 9, meaning the Bakhmutka highway in northern Luhansk province with its Ukrainian strongholds Krymske, Zolote and Hirske being targeted daily, the town of Stanitsia Luhanska on the (old) Ukrainian-Russian border and Popasna, opposite Pervomaisk. Yes, the number of Grad missile attacks decreased, but more direct artillery, mortar and small arms encounters remain a daily appearance with civilians as well as Ukrainian armed forces casualties. In Donetsk region, the airport of Donetsk city as well as its bridgeheads in Pisky, Opytne and partly Avdeevka are subject to daily shelling and fire attacks, while it remains unclear, if Terminal 1 of Donetsk airport is still accessible via Ukrainian.held territory or the two allowed resupply routes via Russian-held territory signal an even worse situation. It is chilling that Ukrainian troops at the airport – the so called “Cyborgs” – claim, they were not rotated and resupplied with arms and ammunition since more than 8 weeks.

Rus flags

Picture shows flags of “Novorossiya” on top of Terminal 2, only meters away from Terminal 1, held by the Ukrainian army

A rather new development in terms of Russian attack focus areas stretches along the Kalmius river, north of Mariupol. This river is the official demarcation line, agreed on by all parties in the Minsk memorandum. However, as we know Russian forces and their local proxies do not accept their own signatures under the paper, it is not astonishing they are willing to extend their area of control beyond that natural border. Thus, attacks started on January 1st with all sorts of weapons, even face to face encounters, trying to push back Ukrainian forces – mainly from the Regiment Azov national guard – and build bridgeheads on the left side of the river. Between January 2 and 4, Orlivske, Hnutove and Hranitne came under attack from Russian forces.

Kalmius

Map shows locations and used weapons, acc. to the Ukrainian defenders

Beyond concrete attacks on the Ukrainian line of defense, multiple other worrying developments were recorded, mainly a – partly violent – replacement of Russian “volunteer” (former army) mercenaries with more Moscow-loyal forces, accepting the high command from the Kremlin and behaving less “wild” on Ukrainian ground. Despite only little facts available, it seems those Russian invaders, trying to build a “New Russia” – “Novorossiya” – are fought and replaced by the more “legitimate” pro-Moscow regimes, namely the “People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk”. While one Russian ringleader, called “Batman”, was killed by LC regime forces, others of his group swore to fight both, the local regimes as well as the Ukrainian army from now on. Ukrainian reports say up to 23 militants from both sides were killed in recent infighting, seemingly supported by aftermath pictures.

batman

Aftermath of LC-Novorossiya infighting in Luhansk region

While those, not behaving like Moscow wants it, are sent back to Russia or – if not willing to – obliterated without mercy, those, who obey to the Kremlin leaders’ will are rewarded with the latest Russian army military hardware, namely the BPM-97 “Vystrel”. Those apc, only produced in Russia and only used by Russian border troops, are the latest hint that the very leadership of the Russian Federation has nothing in mind that could equal any kind of retraction from its offensive position in Ukraine.

BPM-97

The BPM-97 in “war games” in Luhansk province

At the same time, it becomes once more explicit that Russia – just like with its T-72B1 or T-72B3 – would never give its latest armored personal carriers to any “rebel” faction in some renegade region abroad, but would only allow a free “export” of its 2000s hardware with qualified and loyal – Russian Army – personal. That this personal is active as never before in Ukraine can on the one hand be recognized by multiple reports:  Even the Ukrainian NSDC, which has a long history of downplaying Russian involvement in the conflict, fearing a cut off from international funds, said on January 3 that hundreds of Russian Federation troops entered Ukraine lately. Other reports from local witnesses and media reported for instance that 300 Russian soldiers had taken over Horlivka at the frontline with Ukraine, sending “DNR” forces to the hinterland. On the other hand, more and more evidence turns up that Russian soldiers from the Far East, seen approaching from Ulan Ude and elsewhere in November, are now fighting in Donbas, like in Horlivka as mentioned above.

horlivka

Far East Russian soldier in Horlivka on January 1

Last but not least, the Russian army (ab)used the Ukrainian “silence mode” to build up a working military logistic and infrastructure network in Donbas, now being able to (at least for a while) repulse any kind of military attack from the Ukrainian mainland. Part of this network are air defense systems and backup bases in Donbas hinterland (10km or more from the front line), like this base with dozens of BMP-1 in a former public transport depot, recently recovered and geolocated by me in Krasnyi-Luch.

krasnyi-luch

Russian base in Krasnyi Luch

In conclusion, there is no indication at all of Russia or its two local puppet regimes, having any intention to stick to the signed Minsk agreement. Hence, there is no sign on the horizon that the Ukrainian president’s peace plan, ceasefire or “silent mode” were anything close to be working in Ukraine’s favor. Therefor it is up to the Ukrainian government to chose if it wants to further stand idle and watch how a powerful Russian invasion force is taking shape on Ukrainian soil, able to hit hard when it where it chooses — OR if it wants to regain the initiative in the conflict by not allowing militants to strike at will and unpunished, killing Ukrainian citizens and soldiers and – slowly but steadily – expanding their controlled territory inside Ukraine and further shrinking a young, but proud and – if willing – also punchy European nation. Did you have a good read?! Please support my work with 1$ per month or more!

“The Battle of Shaykh Maskin” – in depth war reporting, using the tool of footage geolocation

Introduction

If someone would ask me for the way from the main intersection in Shaykh Maskin’s to the north eastern hill where the Brigade 82 headquarters are based, I could probably give him directions without ever having been in the city or even the country. Moreover, I would be able to tell him, until what point he would be moving in rebel territory and at which street, he would have to choose whether to take cover or run over to the Assad regime side… No one will ever ask me and I won’t give directions.

The point I want to make is that by reviewing multiple video angles of the town from recent rebel footage and comparing these with google maps and bing maps satellite images, I got able to tell, who is watching from which point into which direction and what this means for the viewer and the sighted objects.

When it comes to reporting on war, this analytical process, called geolocating, can turn out to be extraordinarily important as it allows to determine fighting action on the meter exactly, without relying on reports of either side of the conflict, whitewashing their “facts” in their particular favor in 99% of all cases (no offense as perfectly understandable). Moreover, it allows to follow conflicts closely and report on their progression, without risking one’s life. This becomes particularly interesting, talking about conflict zones, far too dangerous to send in neutral journalists.

Body

Coming back to the Battle of Shaykh Maskin, this fight serves as a perfect example for tracking frontline developments in an urban warfare situation from social media footage. I will describe how the battle proceeded, solely using my analyzed and geolocated rebel videos over the last 7 weeks. Altogether, I included some 200 videos from 15 rebel factions, ranging from Free Syrian Army brigades over moderate islamists from the Islamic Front to islamist fighters from Jabhat al Nusra, often described as a local branch of al-Qaeda.

In late October, Syrian rebels started their offensive on the Assad regime-held bases east of Nawa, resulting in the capture of at least 9 military installation between Nawa and Shaykh Maskin.

Nawa

Rebel gains around Nawa in early November, paving the way to Shaykh Maskin

These victories paved the way for the start of the offensive on the regime stronghold of Shaykh Maskin itself. While Nawa is the second biggest town in Daraa province, however not extremely strategically important beside that fact, Shaykh Maskin is the last regime-held city before the highway M5, which connects regime-held Daraa city with the greater Damascus area.  If it falls, Daraa city would be under threat of becoming besieged by rebels, which would result in the toal collapse of the Assad regime rule over its southern region.

Daraa map

Map from mid November by @PetoLucem

The battle started November 1st, when rebels attacked the west and south west of the city. Due to the recent regime losses around Nawa, the defense of the city was weak and rebels forces needed only 5 days to occupy the entire south west. This enabled them tp launch an assault on the central intersection with the largest city mosque and main road barrier.

Shaykh Intersection

Rebel attack on central intersection barrier November 6

Shortly after the intersection and mosque were taken, however the Assad regime started to send reinforcements, coming from the east and north, so nearby towns like Izraa, but presumably also Damascus itself. Shortly after, rebels were in pssession of the mosque, but didn’t control the intersection anymore, from which they started their assault.

mosque taken

View from the taken mosque on the embattled intersection

At the same time, rebels tried to advance north, attacking the Brigade 82 headquarters of the city. However, due to massive Assad regime reinforcements, strengthening the different Brigade 82 complexes in the city, the rebel army started to face a two-front war, being attacked from the housing complex of Brigade 82, located in the south east, as well as the headquarters of the Brigade, located in the north. Additionally, regime forces were pushing down the north-south road, coming from the north east of the city, where there are several towns and wide strips of land under Assad regime rule. At the same time, Assad air force jets bombed rebel forces as well as civilian areas in the city, making it extremely hard to advance for rebels and even letting them lose some of the before-held territory.

retreat

Regime counterattack, November 21

In this situation, only something dramatic could save rebels from being entirely pushed out of the city and towards Nawa in the west. This dramatic change came, when strong reinforcements from the Jabhat al Nusra islamist extremist group arrived in the city in late November. They added what moderate rebels, using advanced weapons (like the Saudi-supplied TOW), needed to succeed: Manpower and “absolute devotion”, meaning the willingness to not just win and survive the battle, but also sacrifice for this goal as a tactical mean … talking of suicide car bombers.

On December 7, two suicide bombers, using BMP ambulances rammed their vehicles into the Brigade 82 housing compley, destroying wide parts of the base.

svbied1

First SVBIED, Dec 7

svbied

Second SVBIED, December 7

This massive attack did not only stop the regime’s assault from the east of the city. Furthermore, it enabled rebels to attack and take the housing complex, effectively returning to a one front war towards the northern parts of the city. The suicide bombings caused massive destruction, leading to the collapse of several of the Brigade 82 housing area barracks. Between 20 and 50 Assad troops died in the assault. The rest fled to Izraa and Garfah.

svbiedafter

Aftermatho of the double SVBIED attack.

A short Assad army counteroffensive on December 8  coming from the S-E was fended off and within a couple of days, rebels were in a far better position, being now able to focus on the northern parts os the city. The two maps for comparison show the location of the two suicide BMP bombs as well as the directions of the rebel assault after victory in the south east.

map after svbied

On December 9, the offensive on the Brigade 82 headquarters got intensified. Using small arms, mortars, but also ATGM and TOW, rebels launched hit after hit vs. regime troops, which were – and are – still resupplied from the north and the north east of the country. It becomes clear that no quick victory, like it was seen in the south east, is in sight in the north. Partly due to the superior position of Assad forces on the two heavily fortified hills, partly because Jabhat al Nusra seems to have withdrawn again from the battlefield, taking its 100+ men with them, leaving the offensive to not more than 300 FSA and moderate isalmist forces.

brig82-1

Territorial gains for rebels during the first half of December 2014

brig82-2

Attacks on Brigade82 and the eastern side of the main N<>S road

Despite tough battles and very slow rebel advances, progress for rebel forces is visible and the chance of Assad bouncing back seems very small.

On December 18, a number of videos appeared, making it possible to geolocate the current frontline in the city, slowly but continuously moving northward, indicating the liberation of another city from the grip of the Assad regime. At the same time, there is still heavy resistance from fanatic Assad-supportive troops, willing to risk everything for their loyalty to the country’s dictator. One indication of a long battle ahead is the – possible – recapture or eager hold on one high rising sniper position, very close to the center of the town.

brig82-3

View on the Brigade 82 hq and strategic situation map on December 18

However the sooner or later coming total defeat of the regime in Shaykh Maskin does not mean an immediate ease for the inhabitants of the town as the Assad regime follows the policy of scorched earth, bombing all lost areas – from the air – even harder than during military engagements in the respective territories.

Conclusion

The article at hand summarizes the footage analysis and locating work of more than 7 weeks. It shows that geolocating footage from ongoing battles and too-dangerous-to-enter war areas can lead to a deep understanding of the regarding conflicts in a journalistic as well as military-strategic respect. Therefore, I will continue using this instrument as a main tool of my work, trying to make sense of ongoing conflicts and describe them beyond “reported” or rather “claimed” and thus doubtful communiques from the involved actors on the ground. Last but not least, the battle for Shaykh Maskin is not over yet and I will consider writing a “part 2”, in case of decisive developments on the ground.

 

All sources in my Twitter feed between November 5 and December 18.

“The Boy who cried wolf” – my interview with the BBC at the turning point in Ukraine

At the 21st of August 2014, I was contacted by Vivienne Nunis from the BBC World Service, asking for an interview on the current situation in eastern Ukraine.

Although, the battle for Donbas was raging on for almost 4 months at this point, the general expectation was that the Ukrainian army was advancing and – after the recaptures of towns like Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Lisiciansk – was close to retaking Luhansk and Donetsk city, which would have brought the majority of the population of Donbas back under Ukrainian government control.

Instead, it had decided to bypass these metropoles and instead try to recapture the entire borderline between Ukraine and Russia, seemingly still thinking, there was an influx in fighters and equipment ongoing, but no direct involvement of the Russia Federation’s armed forces was looming on the horizon. As most of us know today – it was dead wrong.

Already two weeks before this date, the first T-72B1 (video-evidently) turned up inside Ukraine, tanks that – different from the until then supplied old sotcks T-64 – were still in active service by the Russian Federation’s army and which the country would never have “presented” to “rebels” abroad, not being sure that the operators of those modern battle tanks were trained enough to properly use them on the battlefield.

However at this point, several days before the end of August, most of the relevant actors, including the EU and the Ukrainian government as well as wide parts of the public, did not believe or at least did not communicate, that Russia had already gone far beyond logistical support of – few and weak – local insurgent forces as well as “volunteers”, being drafted and deployed to eastern Ukraine from Russian regions like the Caucasus or the wider Don region with its “Cossack” minority community.

At the same time, I was covering the conflict as detailed and beyond mainstream sources as possible, analyzing and geolocating people’s footage, showing large columns of – manned – Russian weapon systems streaming into cities like Krasnodon and Thorez, both, near to the Russian border and strategically located near Luhansk, resp. Donetsk city.

I pointed out that the observed T-72, BTR-80A as well as BMP, MT-LB and a wide range of artillery pieces were only the forerunners of things that would follow shortly. For this pessimistic – and widely contrary to the Ukrainian army-published constant success messages, I was almost daily called the proverbial “boy who cried wolf”, who overdid military developments on the ground and was – if at all – crying “Russian invasion!” far too early.

However, some attentive people – like Vivienne and her bosses at the BBC – had the presentiment that most of the public had a wrong impression of what was really going on in the eastern Ukrainian border areas or at least thought it would be wise give a voise to those, opposing the general public opinion. – So I gave the interview at the 23rd of August, clarifying that already at this point, some 100 Russian T-64 main battle tank had entered Ukraine and more modern equipment was entering at this very moment. I also felt the obligation to say, that because of this, it was misleading and simply wrong to speak of “separatists”, but the only possible accurate wording was to call those forces “invaders”.

Although the short interview didn’t allow me to further go into detail, I think I made it clear, that we are not dealing with a local insurgency, but a foreign-led invasion, happening in eastern Ukraine at this time and gaining strength by the day.

Within the next 7 days, it turned out, I was WAY OFF from “crying wolf” and Ukraine and the free world paid a heavy price for not listening to a small group of people, being aware of the real sitaution on the ground …

A massive Russian army invasion started from exactly these areas, we predicted them to come from. The Ukrainian army strongholds of Savur Mohyla, Ilovaisk and Luhansk airport fell and with them some 1000 Ukrainian soldiers, a number, Europe has not seen in such a short period of time since World War II.

The below maps shows the (official Ukrainian army-reported) strategic situation, at the day of my interview with the BBC and today.

21.8.201415.12.2014

As you can see, “crying wolf” where there were tens of thousands of wolves, invading the Donbas region, didn’t help as there was either no political will to treat the situation as what it was (and still is!) or political incompetence, leading to the most crushing defeat of a European army in the 21st century.

Four months on, we are in another “ceasefire” that cost far more than 1000 people their lives, have a de facto pro-Russian regime in eastern Ukraine and still no political will to regain the lost land or – at least finally call a spade a spade.

What does this tell us for the future?

1st: LISTEN to people, opposing the common opinion in security-related issues, especially when they have inside information, mainstream media and seemingly even government intelligence do not have or is not willing to use.

2nd: Do not repeat mistakes, you have made once. Until the very day, Russia is claiming, it is not involved in the Ukrainian conflict and not responsible for the death of 1500-2000 Ukrainian soldiers, national guard troops and border patrol forces as well as thousands of civilians. They lied then and they lie today, which is such as evidently that even former close allies – like several European governments – are not willing to buy those lies anymore and put a range of sanctions on Russia, punishing its “meddling” in Ukraine.

3rd: Follow the example BBC and other established mainstream media companies, letting citizens and especially citizen journalists have their say, although it might contradict what most people think is “real”. Sometimes only a few boys (and girls) see the wolf coming.

AUDIO FILE: My interview with the BBC on August 21