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.

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A glimmer of hope – the Azov counteroffensive

Surprise attack

This morning, the Ukrainian national guard force “Regiment Azov” surprised virtually the whole world when it claimed, it started a counteroffensive east and north east of Mariupol mostly along the coastline of the Azov sea. Within hours, it pierced the thin Russian line of defense some 2-5 km east of the city and retook important towns like Pavlopil, Shyronkyne and Kominternove. At the same time it took the smaller settlements of Lebedynske and Berdyanske, which over the last month were more than once the launching pads for Russian tank, mortar and artillery attacks on the Ukrainian front east of Mariupol.

The liberated areas

First evidence pictures came from Pavlopil, which fell to Russian forces in early December last year, breaking the Minsk agreement. Geolocable footage shows, Regiment Azov indeed regained control over the town on the eastern bank of the river Kalmius, which was often used to attack nearby Orlivske and Hnutove since then. The picture shows that the “Novorossiya” flag was replaced by an Ukrainian one early on February 10.

pavlopil

Liberated Pavlopil

But Regiment Azov did not limit its push to the northern countryside of Mariupol. Instead, it also attacked right eastward, not halting at the pragmatically agreed on “Minsk demarcation line”, but – rightly – crossing it to recapture what Russia had stolen from Ukraine in late September last year, when it invaded Novoazovsk and the surrounding areas from the direction of Taganrog. Simultaniously to Pavlopil in the north, Ukrainian forces captured Shyrokyne, the coastal town which was captured by Russian army forces on October 17 last year and for instance the origin of a deadly Grad attack (geolocated by me) on Talakivka 10 days later. The Ukrainian push reached further inland, with Regiment Azov reporting, they had attacked the first checkpoints of the Russian stronghold Sakhanka. However, this town could not be taken immediately, but fighting rages on. The local Russian invasion command in Donetsk confirmed the offensive shortly after, however denying that Ukrainian forces had indeed overrun Shyrokyne and claiming that fightin was still ongoing in the area.

Update: Shortly after the article was published, Regiment Azov published footage from its push into Shyrokyne. Geolocated (by me), it proves, the entire town was taken over and Russian forces remain to the north east of it (see geolocation below).

shyrokyne

Shyrokyne under control of Regiment Azov

Further north, Ukrainian troops sped down the T0519 road, reaching the next Russian-held town around 11am, named Kominternove. Ukrainian forces liberated Kominternove, however Russian occupiers meanwhile adjusted to the “Blitzkrieg”-like surpirse offensive and firing at the town from Zaichenko to its east, injuring several people. The frontline remains between the tow towns, according to the latest information around 4pm local time in the afternoon.

In conclusion, Ukrainian national guard forces shifted the frontline up to 11 km to the east, taking an area of more than 100km² as the below (report and evidence footage-based) map illustrates.

Mariupol

Ukrainian advances east of Mariupol, February 10, 2015

The strategic goal

While during the first 3 hours it looked like Regiment Azov had left the Ukrainian chain of command and attacked eastward without Kiev’s backing, the National Security and Defense Council then reported, its secretary, Turchinov personally commanded the offensive and was in Mariupol. At the same time, the strategic purpose of the latest offensive remains. While Regiment Azov says, it was to “push the enemy frontline from the city [Mariupol] and decrease the threat of MLRS fire”, the Ukrainian army command says, it was to “return to the demarcation line military demarcation, which were recorded in the Minsk agreements”. Whatever it really is, the offensive shows that a surprise push against (locally) weak Russian lines can lead to substantial territorial gains.

The bigger picture

However it remains unclear of the move was wise. With Russian invasion forces unable to take Mariupol for now, they shifted their focus further to the north of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Now that Ukrainian forces left the cover of the town and went into open country, they are more vulnerable to enemy attacks than before. It also remains unclear, if the Russian invasion command in Mosow will accept today’s defeat in the area or rather mobilize once again its mighty military just over the border in Taganrog to launch an even harder counteroffensive. At the same time, the heinous Russian army 9A52-4 Tornado attack on Kramatorsk – 50 km from the actual frontline, killing 7 civilians and 4 soldiers – might be a first retaliation measure by the aggressor, showing he is not happy with the Ukrainian move in the south. Whatever will happen next, the Ukrainian army (/National Guard) set an important sign of exclamation with the Azov counteroffensive. After losing hundreds of soldier for just holding or losing (1500 km²) ground over the last 6 months, it now seeds a tiny glimmer of hope to millions of Ukrainians and around the globe, having almost lost hope that the status quo in occupied Donbas would ever again shift to Ukraine’s favor whether politically or militarily founded.

At the same time, this local success doesn’t change the overall picture of the military situation in Donbas. Between 1500 and 5000 Ukrainian troops remain trapped in the pocket of Debaltseve with all Ukrainian army efforts to reopen it failing so far. The Russian army is several times stronger and better equipped than Ukrainian defenders and the momentum of the battle for Ukraine will not shift due to the coastal offensive in the south. But the signal is important. Ukraine will not go down without a fight and there is some hope left, the international community will come to its senses, support Ukraine in its struggle for freedom and punish Russia for its behavior with severe political and economic sanctions.