A ceasefire to lose it all?! An analysis of the latest military developments in Ukraine.

This morning, the Ukrainian president Poroshenko had his first public appearance in Australia.

14.000 kilometers away from his country, he claimed: ” Today is the first 24 hours for seven months… when we have a real ceasefire in Ukraine.” and he continued: “You simply can’t imagine how important it is for me. This is the first night when I don’t have either a lost or wounded Ukrainian soldier.”

But is his optimism justified? Is there really a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, which saw death and destruction by Russian aggressors over the last 7 months? Or is this just another silence before the storm, like the it happened in June and September for instance?!

This morning, first report emerged of Russian forces, strengthening their positions near the strategic Bahmutki highway, which is partly controlled by Ukrainian forces and secures Ukrainian-held territory south of the Seversky Donets river in the Luhansk region (source). At least five tanks and several 2S1 self-propellered howitzers were seen taking up positions near Ukrainian checkpoints, without the Ukrainian army reacting to it, due to the “silence mode”, ordered by the government.

Then this afternoon, chilling footage appeared, seemingly showing a large Russian invasion army convoy, going from the Donetsk area to the southern city of Mariupol, which Russian forces tried to take in August, but were stopped some 5-10 km east of it. The convoy was probably filmed near Starobesheve, as shown of the map.

map

Possible path of the filmed Russian column

The footage shows dozens of modern battle tanks, namely T-72B1 and T-64BV, all brought to Ukraine by the Russian army via trains and low-loaders from all over Russia (as proven before by the Russian railway H2200 markings for heavy equipment on top of its wagons. The convoy also included a double-digit number of BMP-2, BTR-70, BTR-80 – all of those infantry fighting vehicles and armored personal carriers – as well as dozens of Ural and KamAZ trucks, transporting troops, ammunition and some of them towing field artillery pieces of different types.

Last but not least it should be mentioned that many of the armored personal carriers caried the writing: “TO MARIUPOL” which seems to be hard to misinterpret.

The following pictures show some of the weapon systems in the observed column.

bmp-2

BMP-2 with “TO MARIUPOL” written on it

T-72B1

Two T-72B1 main battle tanks

T-64

T-64BV main battle tank

Ural with artillery

Ural trucks, towing artillery

So what to make out of these obvious massive redeployments of Russian forces inside occupied Donbas?

Regarding the large column, seen yesterday, there are three possible alternatives, why they left Donetsk towards the south.

1. It is possible that these vehicles and the involved troops are actually not going to Mariupol but back to Russia, using one of the Russian-controlled Ukrainian border posts in south eastern Donetsk oblast or the “green border”. The fact that these troops are so willingly showing their “real intention” – “to go to Mariupol” raises suspicion, if they are really so confident that they will give away all strategic advantage by not telling spectators, the internet – and by this the Ukrainian army, what they are planning right now.

It is possible that the Russian regime – in its attempt to fix and calm the situation in eastern Ukraine – is withdrawing its “victorious” forces, however not willing to show that without any propaganda.

2. As I have argued over the last weeks, large Russian army movements and reinforcements to certain areas inside Ukraine do not automatically mean that those troops shall be used to fight Ukrainian soldiers, but to control and – if necessary fight and kill – “rogue” (pro-)Russian units, which have too high aspirations for the advance inside Ukraine (“Odessa” or alike) or are not willing to obey orders from the “rebel” military leadership in Moscow.

There were several reports of Russian forces shelling each other east of Mariupol over the last 2 months, reports of Russian army forces retreating to Novoazovsk and only badly equipped volunteers or even locals holding the frontline, 5-10 km from Mariupol.

3. … and this is where we are coming back to the initial question: There is a – huge – possibility that the entire latest “ceasefire” in eastern Ukraine – which was never fully accepted or even implemented by ANY of the anti-Ukrainian factions, is solely used by Russian aggressors to prepare for the next – even more daily and brutal – round of fighting. These preparations could be made to take – as the leaders of the two “Peoples’ Republics always promised” to prepare for the battle that would aim to take all of Luhansk and Donetsk oblast and reach possibly even further.

In this case, what we hear and see since the start of the latest ceasefire on Tuesday is a tactical redeployments and strengthening of troops, equipment and positions to simply break it another time and hit the Ukrainian army and people as severely as never before. In this context, the arrival of another – 120 vehicle – “aid” convoy in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions this morning could be another sign of escalation, knowing these convoys transported military equipment to local forces before.

Also in this context, the massive Russian military column that was seen yesterday and described above could indeed by the Battalion-size force which is to take Mariupol and the surrounding areas in the weeks and months to come. Although, there is a massive Ukrainian army force west of Donetsk, Russian invaders could have realized that they can rely on Poroshenko’s word and he won’t start any counterattack, no matter what. Knowing this, Russia could have decided to redeploy several hundred troops plus a mighty apc/tank/artillery force to the south to extend its controlled territory on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov.

President Poroshenko’s policy – still – could be the smartest possible one, not provoking further aggression from the Russian side. However, there is a certain chance, his political and military restraint will be interpreted by weakness by the rulers in the Kremlin and their proxy forces in occupied Donbas, which could lead to Ukraine, paying the highest price for its current appeasement policy.

Source tweets by me:

Tracking the Islamic State’s advance towards Deir Ezzor airport

Islamist terrorists and airplanes make a bad mixture, which is not only known since the 9/11 attacks. This might be one reason, why advances of the so-called „Islamic State” on airports are monitored with even greater concern than its general military gains – and losses – in Syrian and Iraq.

Despite the fact that the Islamic State controls some three to four landing strips in the two countries and was never able to start a single manned aircraft from these, its well-known assault on Deir Ezzor airport (map below) is not just a worry to the Assad regime, which holds it right now, but also to regional and western strategists, fearing fighter jets, helicopters as well as loads of heavy and advanced weapons could fall into the IS’ hands.

1The airport of Deir Ezzor

The Islamic extremist organisation is controlling wide parts of Deir Ezzor city since months, which is located north east of the airport. However vague reports emerged over the last weeks, its troops are directly advancing on the airstrip. While this was harshly rejected by the Assad regime ministry of information, western intelligence agencies as well as major news portals had no information on the issue for weeks. On the other side – always “optimistic” – written claims by the terrorist organisation itself normally cannot be checked and thus have to be taken as unconfirmed, mostly exaggerated propaganda.

Therefore to get to know the real extent of the territory the IS controls and the gains or losses they make remains only one promising way, which is the geolocation and analysis of their posted videos.
Doing this over the last days I discovered that their advance on the airport itself moved further than most people expected (scroll down for my source tweets). By precisely geolocating their videos it can be observed that they bypassed the city itself, advanced from the south east and took up positions, which are only 300 meters away from territory of the airport itself and not more than 600 meters from the runway and apron (see map below).

2Identified IS positions near the airport

Given the fact that they seem able to hold these areas for days or more, two different conclusions can be drawn.
First, the Assad regime forces in the area seem to be thinned out and not strong enough anymore to counterattack these strategic positions and push back the IS troops from the perimeters of its airport. This is a telling aspect as it suggests, Assad as well as IS troops have approximately the same military strength in the area. At the same time both sides are weakened from battles at other frontlines, which do not run to their favour.

Second, it can be assumed that at least fixed wing aircraft are not able to approach or take off from the south eastern direction of Deir Ezzor airport anymore as IS troops have positioned heavy machine guns in the area. These would be a far too big threat to low-flying aircraft. This means that – at least for now – the Assad regime cannot use its biggest advantage in the war in Syria, which has always been its air force.

Finally, some final conclusions can be drawn from the most recent developments in the area. While the current advance and possible takeover of Deir Ezzor military airport by the Islamic State might be no big challenge for western governments and might not increase the threat level of aircraft-related terrorist acts, it might deal a deadly blow to the aspirations of the Assad regime in eastern Syria. The fall of Deir Ezzor airport would further weaken the Syrian dictator’s regime in an area, he already lost significant stretches of land and has little to no resources to fill up its thinned out ranks.

Last but not least it has to be said that without the detailed geolocation of recent IS operational videos from the area, no reliable information at all would be available and no conclusions could have been drawn.

 

Source tweets, featuring the conducted analysis and geolocation of the IS video:

https://twitter.com/Conflict_Report/status/542743194371620865

https://twitter.com/Conflict_Report/status/542717145600499712