Assessment of Russia’s next military moves in Ukraine after the fall of Debaltseve

Early February 18, thousands of Ukrainian troops began withdrawing – or rather fleeing – the (almost) pocket of Debaltseve after the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko kept them deliberately inside the trap “to show the whole world the face of the bandits-separatists backed by Russia” after the Minsk “agreement”, knowing this would cost more lives of his best troops, fighting in the area since Christmas last year.

Despite Russian invaders trying to kill as many as possible of the fleeing troops, attacking MEDEVAC points with all kinds of heavy weapons, most of the Ukrainian soldiers managed to leave the area alive, even taking some 90% of their equipment with them. However, up 100 troops were killed during the two days of withdrawal, almost 200 injured and around 120 captured by the invasion army. Two days later on February 20, not only the entire city was under Russian control, but also 420 km² of Ukrainian land (a flagrant violation of the Minsk 1-agreed on demarcation line) were lost due to the overwhelming Russian army involvement as well as the incompetence and unwillingness to counterattack by the Ukrainian side.

At the end of the day, Russia achieved what Putin had already predicted after the end of the Minsk 2 talks on February 12, namely to close the gap between its two puppet regimes in eastern Ukraine and to gain total control over all train and car traffic in occupied Donbas. After that, many western politicians and media analysts were hopeful that now, Putin’s aspirations in Ukraine would be satisfied and there would be no more need for further conflict. … Way off the mark!

As both sides stopped shooting around Debaltseve, the fire reappeared and re-intensified at the (still) Ukrainian-held, well-known hot spots around Donetsk, namely Avdeevka to its north and the frontline villages around the now Russian-held airport, namely Vodyane, Opytne and Pisky.

map 20.02.

It seems obviously that further advance in these areas remains an imperative for the Russian invasion command as its largest occupied city (Donetsk) is still a “border town” and close to several nearby Ukrainian army strongholds, a situation it even could not accept if it had no further plans to advance westward during the next months.

At the same time, Russia’s thirst for more land is most visible in the south where the largest free city in the Donetsk region Mariupol remains a red rag for the aggressor. Hence, it is not surprising that multiple reports indicate strong reinforcements arrived close to the freshly retaken areas east of the city from Taganrog in Russia, preparing the next large-scale offensive. The expected push would not just be to retake the recently liberated small towns of Shyrokyne, Berdyans’ke, Lebedyns’ke, Pavlopil and Kominternove but to finally gain control over Mariupol itself, paving the way for the needed push westwards along the Azov Sea, via Melitopol towards the Ukrainian border with Crimea.

mariupol

Around February 20, the first of these Russian troops arrived to the coastal settlement of Shyrokyne, where tanks and infantry forces, backed by mortar batteries intensified their assault on the Ukrainian-held line of defense west of the town, leading to first casualties. On February 22, visual reports of new artillery rounds, releasing multiple fragmented shells appeared, leaving no doubt Russia was serious as ever to regain the recently lost 100 km² east of Mariupol and more.

While the above assessment is based on recent fighting activity on the ground, there is more reason to believe in a resurgence of fighting in southern and western occupied Donetsk oblast. Geolocated footage of Russian army troops, involved in the fighting for Debaltseve until last week indicates those forces are not – as widely hoped for in Europe – going back to Russia after their mission in Ukraine would be accomplished, but move to potential new battlefields in the two areas described above. The most memorable formation, followed via first-hand footage, involves the high tech Russian army-only T-72B3 tanks, with many more armored vehicles crucial to last week’s victory in central Donbas and probably needed in any meaningful future assault.

The Russian main force with many T-72B1 and B3 attacked Debaltseve from Zorynsk after passing Luhansk from Russia earlier this month. This column with not less than 30 armored vehicles was filmed at several geographical points by locals moving to the south west after the battle of Debaltseve ended, indicating its redeployment to the wider Donetsk area or further south, to east of Mariupol

tank column

In conclusion, it is Russia and the Supreme Commander of the invasion Vladimir Putin only who benefit from the latest Minsk agreement.

The necessary redeployment of hundreds of armored vehicles and artillery pieces to new fighting theaters while ruling when and when not to show these movements to the OSCE, enables them to keep up the picture of “withdrawal in accordance with the Minsk 2 deal” while getting in a position to once again strike hard with all their available man- and firepower

The naive and dangerous Ukrainian 100% adherence of the agreed on ceasefire gives Russia the possibility to once again thin out certain frontline sectors (e.g. Pervomaisk and Kirovs’k for now) while not being under any threat that these open flanks will be used by the Ukrainian army for diversionary attacks. Hence, it is again Russia which will – just like after Minsk 1 – decide when and where to strike and advance, using all its military potential in eastern Ukraine at one or two chosen points while the Ukrainian side keeps stretched thin all along the almost 400 km long front.

As we have seen in January when Donetsk airport fell and February when Debaltseve and some 20 other towns and villages fell, the Russian side does not need an excuse to escalate its efforts for getting hold of a certain area, nonetheless claiming, it is obeying the agreed on ceasefire(s). It is most of the European media that feels obligated to report Kremlin-claimed “Ukrainian offensives” (like we have seen it for weeks in January) until admitting, it is Russia and its proxies, which advance and take more territory. And it is the Ukrainian government that feels obligated to not use heavy arms and counterattack in a meaningful way until it is already too late and another strip of important land miraculously turns “strategically unimportant” and can be given up to the Russian side and its puppet republics.

The aftermath of Minsk 2 seems to become a copy of the aftermath of Minsk 1 with the tiny difference that this time, Russia does not feel the necessity anymore to refrain from offensive military operations as it did for several months after the September 2014 agreement. The Ukrainian and European answers to its continuous and increasing aggression turned out to be mainly empty threats and too weak to frighten it anymore, leaving a gloomy prospect for the months and years to come.

Advertisements

Fool me twice … Russian troops take large parts of Debaltseve

FOOL ME ONCE, SHAME ON YOU. FOOL ME TWICE, SHAME ON ME.

Shortly after the Minsk 1 ceasefire started, it became clear that Russian forces were in no mooed to respect the agreed on truce and started repositioning around the then Ukrainian-held airport of Donetsk, getting in favorable positions all around the new terminal, the only mention worthy position of the Ukrainian military then. After some weeks of relative calm they started an intense shelling campaign of the large building and in late December, they used the advantage which was given to them by the Ukrainian political and military command, assaulting the area from all relevant directions. Three weeks later, the strategically important airport fell to invasion forces (article) from neighboring Russia, a fact that should have been a chilling reminder for the government and military command in Kiev that signing a ceasefire with Russia and relying on it was a grave mistake which should not be repeated at any point in the future.

Far from that! Only 4 weeks later – on February 15 – another “ceasefire” came into effect against the backdrop of a dire military situation around the strategically crucial city of Debalteve with Russian troops claiming (and there are many arguments this was and is indeed the case) the city and thousands of Ukrainian troops in and around it were – and are – encircled and would have the choice to either surrender and withdraw or being obliterated over the next days. However, the Ukrainian political and army command seemed once again to have developed a very unique perception of reality on the ground, claiming – until today – troops are getting reinforced and resupplied and there is no need to reconsider the current – ceasefire – strategy to hold the city. This comes all the more ridiculous as the same army command recorded more than 200 Russian ceasefire violations and more than 40 killed and wounded own troops during the first 48 hours of the latest would-be-agreement.

At the same time, (pro-)Russian media, being embedded with its regular army forces, showed daily footage which – after being analyzed and geolocated – proved that Russian forces were advancing towards the city, into the city and finally took wide parts of it until today, claiming that most parts of it fell and Ukrainian units are either surrendering or withdrawing, only holding the western quarters by noon February 17.

To achieve this, the Russian army used the total absence of heavy Ukrainian artillery and MLRS cover for its troops in Debaltseve, breaching the defensive ring of the city from the north east (Zorynsk) in the night when the ceasefire started (shortly before midnight, February 14). Being inside the city on the morning of February 15, it then could follow its perverted logic of “observing the ceasefire while securing [its claimed city of] Debaltseve”. Nonetheless at this time, there might have been a tiny chance to see, the Russian “ceasefire” commitment was just another of Putin’s lies, attack the entire front and send a strong forces to Debaltseve to either retake the city and its surroundings or withdraw with weapons and leave it to the Russians. Instead the Ukrainian leadership decided – once again – to simply ignore what was happening on the ground and – even worse – counter its own soldiers begs for help, saying they were wrong and there would be no need to do so as the situation was “controlled”.

On February 16, these pleads for urgent help continued without Kiev accepting them or changing anything about its tactics. Instead the evening, the Ukrainian deputy Foreign Minister reasoned like totally out of touch with the reality, saying “everybody should stick to the agreed on ceasefire.” and that the “military is not returning their fire.” This morning (normally around 12 hours delayed) footage appeared once again, showing more territorial gains in Debaltseve, a heavy push from both sides along the main railway tracks with all sorts of Russian army high tech tanks, several Ukrainian POW and an abandoned Ukrainian base, which was seemingly left by soldiers without even taking their heavy armored vehicles with them. The below map shows a summary of the (geolocated and proven true) developments which actually happened on the ground (with a small degree of uncertainty) until the morning of today – February 17.

Developments

However the situation might have changed once again dramatically until the afternoon of today. Since the early morning, (unconfirmed!) Russian media reports claim that around 120 Ukrainian soldiers have surrendered in the city and the center was taken over by invasion forces from Ukraine’s eastern neighbor. While this is not confirmed yet, some Ukrainian journalists acknowledge parts of the version, reporting the central police department and train station were taken over by Russian forces from the Cuacasus region or that Ukrainian troops can hold out for a maximum of another 12 hours and face the threat of being killed if not reinforced after that.

At the same time, the Ukrainian geral staff told in a press conference at 1pm the following, leacing severe doubts, it was even able to see what was happening on the ground not alone act accordingly:

“The Ukrainian military control the village of Logvinovo, and also partially control the road to Debaltseve. There is fierce fighting on the outskirts of the city now, there is a tense situation in the area of the railway station, but our military are holding their positions,”

It took until 5pm in the early evening, when another communiqué was published, painting an entirely different picture of the situation:

“The situation as of right now is extremely difficult. A certain part of the city controlled by illegal armed groups. They assault groups, supported by armored vehicles and artillery attacked our positions. Continuing street battles. Armed Forces of Ukraine and other military formations to maneuver units and fire, and do everything possible to contain the aggression of terrorists

However, it can be argued that this insight comes at least 3 days too late to react in any meaningful way to the Russian advances. Also there is no word on any planned reaction included in the statement, seemingly leaving it up to the winter-withered, outgunned and outnumbered remaining forces in the city to battle it out on their own. In conclusion, signing and relying on another ceasefire was a grave mistake. But it was an even it was an even larger mistake to not revoke the agreed on halt in fighting as soon as it turned out, the Russian side had again no interest in the signed truce and would only use it to its strategic advantage. By now, it seems to late to react and save hundreds or thousands of Ukrainian troops to get killed or turn prisoners of war by the Russian army. Blind trust in the least trustworthy political actor on this planet and a refusal to realize its again made mistake led to a situation, which will now lead to another “Ilovaisk” like in late August / early September 2014. The difference this time: Everybody responsible involved this time exactly knew, about the strength and intention of the enemy and ignored all that knowledge and experience nonetheless. Being fooled for a second time in only 6 months, the involved naive actors – also from central Europe – should know who they should be ashamed of.

Update

Minutes after this article was published, the worst predictions turned out to be true. Russian troops parade more than 30 Ukrainian prisoners of war near Debaltseve, which – according to the Russian command – surrendered voluntarily and – according to the Ukrainian Defense Minister – were captured during a fight after a reinforcement convoy was ambushed and “smashed”. In any case, this is what I forecasted since weeks and also in the article above: No change in strategy by Ukraine and its western partners will lead to complete defeat against the Russian aggressor.

pow

Ukrainian POW near Debaltseve

The storm before the silence? Russian forces escalate their offensives in eastern Ukraine

8 hours before the agreed on ceasefire was thought to come in effect, not only the fighting on the ground escalates but Russian and “DNR / LC” representatives indicate, they will not feel bound to the deal anyways. This development once again proves western hopes for the Russian president Putin coming to his senses were unfounded and will be dissatisfied another time. Two hot spots of intense fighting along the line of contact in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions extract, with the de facto closed pocket of Debaltseve in the north and an area of some 120 km east of the coastal town Mariupol in the south.

In Debaltseve, all Ukrainian efforts to reopen the M03 between Artemivsk and Debaltseve failed since the de facto closure of the pocket 5 days ago (article), trapping an unknown number of Ukrainian troops which might be between 1500 and 5000 according to different reliable sources. Instead, Russian forces were able to widen their control over the strategically important villages of Lohvynove to the north east, controlling half the way to Luhans’ke which is the last point of Ukrainian safe control by now. Fresh Russian army special forces as well as thousands of mercenaries from all over Russian and some local anti-Ukrainian fighters flow in from Horlivka and the areas to the south east with the resupply / reinforcement line reaching directly to Rostov oblast in Russia. Coming via Vuhlehirsk and Kalynivka, they reinforce the frontline with a merely never ending volume of men and heavy weapons. Hence, all Ukrainian army attempts to reopen the M03 failed (with a lot of Ukrainian armor being destroyed) and the only – extremely dangerous and probably not usable at all – road leading into and out of Debaltseve extends some 2 km to the north of the M03 and through the village of Nyzhnje Lozove, reported to be still held by Ukrainian forces.

At the same time, troops loyal to the invasion command in Moscow, intensify their attacks on Debaltseve itself, approaching it mainly along the railway line leading to Zorynsk in the north east. They have come 3 km close to Debaltseve itself yesterday but probably further advanced overnight and stand at the Ukrainian fortifications in Novohryhorivka and the northern suburbs of the city itself by now. In Chornukhyne 3 km east of Debaltseve, Ukrainian and Russian troops fight fierce battles inside the town in what can be described as urban warfare. After the fall of the entire Ukrainian south eastern front in Mius, Ridkodub and Nikishyne, Russian forces could free more troops to take part in the assault coming from the south. The below map summarizes all important territorial and fighting-related developments around the pocket of Debaltseve, showing the desperate and probably only deteriorating situation for the Ukrainian army – in – and outside the besieged area. 

Debaltseve

Over the next hours the situation is likely to further escalate with Russian commanders saying, the 14th of February (today) would be the decisive day for the battle. However, hopes that “Ukrainian troops only have to hold out until midnight” have to be given up as Russian commanders and their local puppets first said, every attempt to reopen the pocket would be regarded as a breach of the Minsk 2 agreement and met with lethal force and later made a mockery of the entire Minsk talks, saying the battle around Debaltseve was not part of the agreement reached (The “DNR’s president” Zakharchenko) and to end the fighting around the town tonight would be a “misinterpretation by western signers” (Russia’s Lavrov via Interfax). Looking at these statements and the developments on the ground, it becomes crystal clear that Putin never planned to give up conquering the city (now) and a lot of land of Ukraine later.

The second battlefield extends east of the southern city of Mariupol, where the Ukrainian National Guard Regiment Azov launched a surprise offensive several days ago, realizing the fact that most Russian invaders are active in other parts of the occupied territory. During their initial assault they managed to push weak Russian forces back around 12 km from Mariupol (article), taking a number of villages and towns along the two main roads leading to Novoazovsk and nearby Russia. However, reports of strong Russian army formations crossing the border from nearby Taganrog turned out to be true and the Russian counteroffensive took full pace this morning with virtually all cities along the front being shelled with heavy weapons leading to the death and (mostly) injury of dozens of Azov fighters as well as civilians along the line of contact. While the Ukrainian National Guard fighters yesterday stood close to the Russian stronghold of Sakhanka (another source tweet), they seemingly had to withdraw to Shyrokyne overnight where they arranged a line of defense under heavy bombardment, successfully taking out several Russian army tanks with light anti tank weapons namely ATGM. The below map gives an impression about the situation according to all reliable sources as it looked like around noon February 14.

Mariupol

It can be excluded that Russia will accept the recent loss of 120 km² in this area. It wants to remain its eyes directly on Mariupol, the largest city remaining under Ukrainian control in occupied Donbas. To achieve that goal, it will not stop the offensive until it regains the line of contact which was in place until last Monday. Doing so and possibly facing heavy resistance from well-equipped Ukrainian forces, it remains to be seen if it will stop east of Mariupol or try to go further this time.

Looking at these developments over the last 24 hours and having in mind that Russian medium range rocket artillery repeatedly bombed cities like Kramatorsk and Artemivsk, far west to the current front, are we indeed facing “the storm before the silence”, meaning a ceasefire starting after all the current fighting in less than 8 hours?

Probably not. Russia isn’t finished with its territorial aspirations in neighboring Ukraine yet. It needs to control a much wider area to secure its strongholds in the east and push Ukrainian troops back from its “Republics’ capitals” of Donetsk and Luhansk (city). Furthermore a land bridge between occupied Crimea and the currently embattled territories of Ukraine is still needed to supply the southern Ukrainian peninsula with the goods it needs for a sustainable development. While this might not happen over the next weeks or months, latest statements (from 10 days before the ceasefire should start) by its puppets in Donetsk city have already set the course for the war to continue.

The “DNR’s president” / terrorist leader Zakharchenko made clear that if not the entire Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk (of which Russia only controls 40% so far) became independent under their leadership, they would expand the war as long as necessary to reach that goal. Keeping that in mind the chance of a real truce starting tonight, not to talk of heavy weapons being withdrawn from next Tuesday, stands close to zero.

The worst case – The pocket of Debaltseve closes, trapping thousands of Ukrainian troops

This morning, February 9 2015 at 9:25, Russian forces in eastern Ukraine claimed what was looming and inevitable seeing no change in tactics and steadily rising Russian ground forces since the beginning of January, but latest since the fall of Vuhlehirsk on February 4 – the pocket of Debaltseve closed and thousands of Ukrainian soldiers got trapped between the Russian puppet regime republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

What was the initial situation?

During the last two weeks, Russian forces made steady territorial gains around Debaltseve, capturing for example Nikishyne, Ridkodub, Mius and the 8000 inhabitants town of Vuhlehirsk as well as overrunning the Ukrainian front in Chornukhyne only 6 km from Debaltseve itself. However, the Ukrainian central military command kept lying to itself, its soldiers and its citizens, claiming on its daily updated maps that nothing really changed and losses were not strategically important, demanding no change in policy (total offensive or withdrawal of up to 5000 troops, facing the danger of getting encircled). The below map shows the situation as described by the Ukrainian military command (left) and Russian invasion media (right). Despite the certain fact that the Russian map includes an element of exaggeration, it is much closer to reality, showing the almost-encirclement of all Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve and south of it. Meanwhile the Ukrainian map did not even “dare” to remove the Ukrainian flag from Vuhlehirsk, simply not talking about it anymore since the loss 6-7 days ago.

map comparison

Comparison of Ukrainian and Russian map of the situation around Debaltseve for February 8

Then yesterday evening it was reported that Russian forces had pushed northward from Vuhlehirsk, taking Kaliynivka. I assessed the development in my latest article, predicting that if there was no immediate counteroffensive, Kalynivka would be the springboard to the E40 – the only lifeline to Debaltseve – just 3.5 kilometers away from it. It turned out, exactly this should happen within the next 24 hours. The map below shows the situation as it looked according to my analysis yesterday.

map mius groß

The situation on the eve of the Russian push to close the pocket

What happened today?

Early morning today, strong Russian army forces departed from their strongholds in Horlivka and Yenakijeve (or came directly from the direction of the Russian-Ukrainian border), made a last stop in Vuhlehirsk and drove northward, passing yesterday-taken (and unchallenged) Kalynivka and head-on attacked the tiny village of Lohvynove which is the only settlement along the E40 between Luhanske and Debaltseve and possibly one of the weakest points of defense among the Ukrainian defense positions. It is possible that Russian forces also attacked from Nyzhnje Lozove to the north, but rather unlikely. There is an Ukrainian defense position (different from the south) and no footage available of fighting at that location, before reaching Lohvynove. Also,(unconfirmed) footage shows strong Russian army formations, passing rather urban areas “to the checkpoint” and thus probably coming from the nearby towns to the south and south west.

2s1

2S1 self-propelled artillery pieces “on their way to the checkpoint”

Long before first pictures of the actual attack on Lohvynove were published by Russian state media and pro-Russian media groups in occupied Donbas in the late afternoon hours of February 9, I posted the first tactical map of how the situation might have developed according to reports in the morning hours and around noon, made by two Ukrainian journalists and two army sources on the ground.

push

Territorial possession and Russian assault direction

It should be mentioned again that while the Russian side claimed the closure of the pocket since noon, Ukrainian army sources vehemently denied such development, also calling on journalists to not publish reports, based on Russian invasion sources. This – extremely weak – tactic was already used, when Ilovaisk, Donetsk airport or Vuhlehirsk were lost to Russian forces and the Ukrainian army tried to gain the information monopoly of the situation, publishing the related new when it would have wanted to …

Then in the evening of February 9, the same disgusting procedure as always started with Russian state media airing (graphic!) footage of overrun Ukrainian positions, bloody Ukrainian POW and yelling Russian ground forces. What is important about the footage however is that it – geolocated – proves that Russian forces indeed too Lohvynove and were – at least for some hours – in full control of it. Especially footage of the bus station along the E40 proved that they cut the “lifeline” of several thousand Ukrainian troops east and south east of it.

bus station

More (graphic!) footage from another pro-Russian channel showed that the (filmed) forces indeed approached the village from the south, further continuing to the inhabited part of it on the north-eastern side of the E40. It also shows that the Ukrainian army claim of a “tank and apc” force is rather not accurate as dozens of marching ground troops can be seen in the footage, while only one Russian MT-LB is seen nearby.

ground forces

Over the whole afternoon and evening, the Ukrainian army claimed that it was “in full control of the entire E40/M04 between Artemivsk and Debaltseve”. This seems increasingly unlikely, especially as Ukrainian media in the evening hours quoted soldiers on the ground, reporting the pocket was closed and not only that; Russian forces had also entered Myronivka some 13 km north of the described battlefield, threatening a double layer around the Ukrainian troops in the bridgehead around Debaltseve and holding back possible reinforcements at the same time. Myronivka is located at the entrance of the Ukrainian promontory into Russian-held territory. A real cut of the E40 there would even trap 1-2 thousand Ukrainian troops more as it would also cut Svitlodars’k and Luhanske from the Ukrainian mainland. The below map, based on the pro-Russian version, shows where the two (reported) E40 cut-off locations are located and illustrates the looming disaster.

double

The looming “double-layered” siege

Latest reports from an Ukrainian investigative journalist in the area confirmed fighting around Lohvynove into the late evening with Russian forces holding the village (blocking the E40) and Ukrainian army units trying to recapture it. The report also included another battle in the village Novohryhorivka, which was fiercely attacked over the whole day and on the verge of falling to Russian troops in the evening. If one or both villages remains under Russian control over the next hours, the journalist rightly concludes, the pocket would be closed.

What happens next?

With the next Minsk talks (a pure farce against the backdrop of the Kremlin obvious and deadly aspirations to capture wide parts of Ukraine with 10.000s of troops and all brutality and willingness to sacrifice thousands of Russian citizens for that aim) coming on Wednesday, the Russian aim is to raise the stakes. Whether or not thousands of encircled Ukrainian troops will be part of the bargain at these negotiations, the Russian aim is to get full control over Debaltseve, being able to move on westward with thousands of own troops, now bound in and around the city.

Looking at hasty ongoing Ukrainian efforts at this very moment, it seems not impossible that it will be able to breach the de facto pocket, which holds since 15 hours, in the coming hours. However if it does so, using all its reserves in the area, it will only be a question of hours or days, before even stronger Russian army reinforcements will push back the Ukrainian army forces and re-close the pocket. Observed Russian army Msta-S columns, a few kilometers to the north in Alchevsk, show what Putin is ready to invest to reach that goal. The battle around Debaltseve is decided, the pocket is closed right now, between 2000 and 5000 troops are besieged and the outlook is gloomy.

Without an immediate and full mobilization, martial law, outside military assistance and intense international diplomatic and economic sanctions to bring Russia back to its senses, Debaltseve will fall within days and the entire Ukrainian frontline will collapse in a couple of weeks or months at max. Russia’s and its proxies’ aim is clear and openly admitted: The seizure of the entire Donbas. Once it has achieved that goal, no more military or moral boundaries will be existent to capture the rest of what it regards as “Novorossiya” reaching up to the borders of the European Union.

Silent advances – Russian troops are closing in on Debaltseve

During the last days, the international media sight concerning the war in Ukraine was widely focused on the political arena, reporting on the Merkel / Hollande “peace plan” visits in Kiev and Moscow and the clash of arguments by Ukrainian president Poroshenko and Russian foreign minister Lavrov at the Munich security conference. At the same time, the real battlefield around the Ukrainian-held key city of Debaltseve fell from view in what seems to be another orchestrated distraction by the invasion command in Moscow. However throwing the spotlight back on the battlefield reveals worrying  developments on the ground, indicating an approaching catastrophe for thousands of Ukrainian soldiers in and around Debaltseve. After the fall of Vuhehirsk and Nikishyne to Russian army forces, new key defense points and villages become the focus of the invasion army, trying to advance on Ukrainian-held Debaltseve. After having lost substantial amounts of tanks and apc in open country assaults between Vuhlehirsk respectively Sanzharivka and their target areas in and around Debaltseve, the Russian army once again switches to smaller assaults through inhabited or wooden areas, supported by heavy artillery and MLRS fire and with a much larger success. The below map shows the focus assault directions over the last 48 hours, which will be analysed in the following paragraphs.

map mius groß

tactical map and assault focuses around Debaltseve

Vuhlehirsk and Kalynivka

After capturing Vuhlehirsk and eliminating last Ukrainian defense positions inside the city around February 3, Russian forces had to once again focus southwards, where the town’s mine was the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the area, from which troops were sent in late January to recapture the southern entrance of Vuhehirsk and some apartment blocks in its south east. On February 7, pro-Russian media published footage of finally taking the mine facility, neutralizing the last threat to its control over Vuhlehirsk from another direction than Debaltseve itself.

mine

Having secured the hinterland, Russian army forces reportedly advanced north, taking Kalynivka yesterday or today with 6 armored fighting vehicles and 2 tanks said to have taken control over the strategic village, only 3.5 kilometers from the E40 – the last remaining road leading out of Debaltseve. If they can hold the position, there is virtually no way for Ukrainian reinforcements to enter or leave the area without being subject to direct fire from the view point.

Mius and Ridkodub

Moving further to the east, the situation seems the same hopeless for Ukrainian defenders and increasingly leaning to the Russian invaders’ side despite official Ukrainian claims of holding the front. Exclusive footage from near Mius, recorded by an Ukrainian camera team, reveals that the Ukrainian narrative of “defending the frontline near Fashchivka” can not be taken as fact-based anymore. Until now it was believed that this wording pointed at the village of Mius, which lies 5 km west of Fashchivka and was so far held by Ukrainian forces. However the geolocated footage shows that the actual frontline checkpoint of the Ukrainian army was located almost one kilometer west of Mius at the intersection of the E40 and the road, connecting (now) Russian-held Nikishyne and Chornukhyne in the north (see map below).

Mius CP

the Ukrainian checkpoint near Mius

The Ukrainian TV team visited the checkpoint on February 6, finding it widely destroyed but nonetheless scattered Ukrainian army forces in the area, however not fixed to the useless infrastructure of the frontline sector anymore. Instead, it rather looks like a visit by some Ukrainian units to the area, which did not (yet) “fall” to Russian forces, but which also can not be called “Ukrainian-held” anymore from every point of view. Hence, it must be assumed the the front line in the area of Mius became a rather fluid situation with Russian forces having literally – physically(!) – destroyed any possibility to defend the area (just like they did with so many areas before like Donetsk airport or Checkpoint 31 in northern Luhansk region). The below picture shows what is left of the former Ukrainian structure.

checkpoint

The scene appears unreal, with almost a dozen of Russian and Ukrainian army vehicle wreckage lying very close to each other all around the former Ukrainian checkpoint, not only indicating extremely short range battles but also an occasional shift in one side or the other holding the intersection. There are disabled / scrapped Russian Ural and Ukrainian Gaz-66 trucks, an Ukrainian MT-LB, a Russian BMP-2, a BTR-80 and – literally side by side – and Ukrainian army T-64BV and a Russian army T-72B1, only 3 meters apart.

wreckages

wreckage around the checkpoint

The end of the video shows the TV team returning to Debaltseve with no further or new fortified front between the destroyed checkpoint and the city along the road. Though this can not be said with certainty, it seems there is no fallback level and the “defense” of the E50 between Fashchivka and Debaltseve now entirely depends on Ukrainian artillery and the plain hope that no Russian tank forces will come that way, fearing another “tank massacre” like the one near Sanzharivka several days ago, where Russian forces lost between 12 and 14 tanks and armored vehicles. This also means that after the fall of Nikishyne and the quasi-fall of the Mius fortification, Ridkodub 3 km to the south remains the only Ukrainian strong point in the area. This morning, the Ukrainian army confirmed, Russian forces have started their direct assault on the village, which is no vulnerable to attacks from the south, east and north. It should not take more than days, before the position falls as there is no change in tactics or balance of power in sight.

Chornukhyne

Chornukhyne is the closest developed area to Debaltseve. Only 3 km away from the Russian target town it becomes a prime goal to capture for Russian army forces as they hope, Ukrainian artillery and MLRS can and will not hit the town as hard as it did in open areas north of Debaltseve during the latest Russian pushes.  Latest Russian footage from February 7 gives a chilling insight into the fighting, which by now has reached the towns suburbs with the Ukrainian fortified front having fallen apart during the last days. The starting point for Russian forces is surprisingly not nearby Fashchivka but the town of Zorynsk, which is located 12 km to the north east. Geolocated footage shows that Russian army forces start from near Zorynsk’s train station (map below). Also in this battle, Russian forces rely on light infantry units with BTR-80 and not heavy tanks like previously seen in Vuhlehirsk or elsewhere.

Zorinsk

Zorynsk

Bypassing the Ukrainian front along the M04, Russian forces can next be seen in the suburbs of Chornukhyne, coming from the north. The fortified Ukrainian line of defense was breached some time ago (picture below), not without causing heavy Russian casualties as well as a destroyed T-64 and BMP-2 on the side of the road proves.

CP

the former Ukrainian line of defense

It is hard to say how far Russian forces have advanced into Chornukhyne as most geolocatable buildings are destroyed and the footage includes many cuts. However there is some indication (including “60% certain geolocations”) that the footage might show they took the way as indicated below, leading to the marked ground possession in the town.

map Chornukhyne

Tactical map of Chornukhyne

Inside the town, regular Russian army infantry can be seen fighting organized and using typical urban warfare tactics. There is – once again – no doubt that there are no or only very few “local rebels” involved in the push.

Rus soldiers

Russian troops inside the town

Conclusion

What does all this tell about the situation on the ground and the political implications? The most important inferences are:

1. The Ukrainian line of defense can in the best case be described as “fluid”. Despite this aspect is not conceded by the Ukrainian side, their held territory around Debaltseve is shrinking day after day. Former (“Minsk”) demarcation line checkpoints are in most cases already overrun by Russian forces or former Ukrainian “border” positions became virtual no-man’s-land and thus staging grounds for further Russian advances. Lost cities and villages like Vuhlehirsk, Nikishyne and Mius are new Russian strongholds from where they attack a much less fortified and hence more vulnerable new frontline – if there is any.

Nona-K

Russian army firing the 2B16 Nona-K in Vuhlehirsk

If the latest reports are true (by Tymchuk and the Information Resistance project), Ukrainian forces and Chornukhyne and Kalynivka are less than 5 km away from the crucial lifeline to Artemivsk and Debaltseve itself while the Ukrainian army was not able to recapture a singe point, town or village in the (almost) pocket of Debaltseve since the start of the Russian offensive in January.

2. Recent talks in Kiev and Moscow and even more the planned talks on Wednesday in Minsk are a charade and at the utmost a diversion by the Russian invasion command in Moscow. There is no indication of change in policy in the political arena or change in tactics on the ground. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers were not sent to Ukraine to stop or even withdraw, shortly before reaching their next big target, which is the capture of Debaltseve. There also is – frankly spoken – no need for negotiations for the Russian side as their forces are advancing on the ground. The only imaginable outcome of negotiations under the current conditions which would actually lead to a stop in fighting is the voluntary surrender of Debaltseve by the Ukrainian army. But also this – after some weeks of a lull in fighting – would only lead to new offensive operations elsewhere in Donbas with then-available forces from the former Debaltseve front.

Russia has so far never accepted meaningful negotiations or adhered to any agreement reached as it comes from a position of military strength and advance on the ground. Before the tide has turned on the battlefields of Donbas, all promises by the aggressor can be regarded as empty talk. Thus, Ukraine and the west must do anything in their capacity to gain the upper hand on the ground before they can hope for real concessions by the Russian side. Referring to the German chancellor Angela Merkel, it must be emphasized that the conflict in Ukraine cannot not be solved by military means, but only by military means. An achieved balance of power on the ground is the only working precondition for meaningful talks on a stable and unchallenged demarcation line with all involved actors.

Footage-based analysis of the current developments in Vuhlehirs’k

Over the last four days (since my article on the Russian storm on Vuhlehirs’k), the situation around the current battle focus town of Vuhlehirs’k was hazy to say the least with Russian forces claiming, they controlled all of it and advanced further to the north and north east while the Ukrainian army said, they dealt devastating blows to the “terrorists and Russian Federation troops” in the area. Just today, the Ukrainian army’s spokesperson Lysenko talked of a “mass death” of militants, after they “came out of the settlement” as they were “covered” with artillery and missiles – inside. However, he also said, the surviving troops were “chased” back in by their commanders to hold it. Meanwhile, what he did not say (during the last 4 daily pressers) was whether Ukrainian troops managed to re-occupy certain or all areas of the town or if all “Ukrainian counterattack” is just a matter of extreme artillery and MLRS fire from outside.

Such extremely contrary statements by both sides involved made it very difficult  to assess the situation from a fact-based perspective, not relying on claims, but veritable pictures from the ground. These pictures were not available since January 30 from neither side, making an objective evaluation of the situation virtually impossible. This changed today.

Evacuation of civilians

In the early morning of February 3, 2015, Russian media claimed, there was a “humanitarian ceasefire” in Vuhlehirs’k between the two involved parties, giving hundreds of civilians the opportunity to flee “to the safety of the DNR and Makeevka”. The Russian narrative was that all civilians in the town were “terrorized” by the Ukrainian shelling and willing to flee to Russian-held areas. Shortly after these statements, first footage appeared of what indeed seemed to be civilians lining up at the (geolocated) western railroad crossing of Vuhlehirs’k and being transported into Russian-held territory by trucks and busses. Shortly after another Russian news station reported with footage from the same area.

evacuation

evacuation of civilians

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from the footage concerning the situation in and around the city.

It seems generally unlikely that Ukrainian civilians would cross the frontline to get evacuated – even in case of a local ceasefire for several hours. Hence, it is more likely that civilians are willing to get evacuated by the respective side controlling the territory they live in. Therefore one conclusion would be that the Russian side indeed controls much of the town as several hundred civilians via their exit points of it. Not because they would be anymore aligned to their side, but simply because it is the safest way to leave the death zone. This would support the Russian narrative of wide control over the area.

At a second glance, something seems odd about the footage and queuing people especially as both Russian channels use exactly the same way to follow the line from its end to its start and the ready-to-go buses and Ural truck. If these people really would come from the main inhabited areas of Vuhlehirsk, they would line up from the east or south east, where two larger streets lead into the city. Instead, they seem to have come from the north, a direction where almost no residential buildings are situated, but the frontline between Russian and Ukrainian positions, thus two reasons speaking against taking that way to seek safety. The below map visualizes this setting.

fake

the “evacuation” setting

This raises the question, if all of those refugees really come from the city and left it via the most dangerous way and from a direction where only few people live. Or if some of them were only moved their for the sake of some positive PR for the involved Russian army. Another possible reason is that such a “humanitarian gesture” could be a good pretext to regroup or hide own repositioning efforts in the area. In the footage, some 300-500 civilians can be seen lining up and several civilian busses as well as military truck are waiting to pick them up. This could mean that only a smaller part of the formerly 7000 inhabitants counting town is under control of the Russian army, however there is no conclusive evidence for that in the footage. In conclusion, the shown “evacuation” footage leaves some questions open while indeed showing, Russian forces control the western entrance of Vuhlehirs’k and there was no fighting before noon today. (parapgraph updated due to new footage and information) Also see Update at the end of the text.

Scenes from inside the city

Beside the scenes from the far west of Vuhlehirs’k Russian media footage included more pictures, giving a deeper insight into the situation. There is one video, summarizing all that footage, which will be analyzed in the following paragraph. The first scene shows a T-64BV with its turret blown off by what must have been caused by a major impact. Another destroyed truck can be seen as well in the picture. The wreckages can be geolocated some 100 meters to the N-W of the main intersection of the town.

T-72

destroyed T-72 close to the center

Two more geolocated images show the central intersection, which was already the scene of fighting on January 29.

center

the center of Vuhlehirs’k

From this footage, several conclusions can be drawn about who controls what in the town. At first, the Ukrainian claim that “all militants were killed and destroyed” in Vuhlheris’k can be falsified. Russian forces control at least the western and central part of the embattled city as the footage shows. Moreover, no military vehicles or defensive positions can be seen which means the actual frontline should be further to the east, leaving the center with the M04 behind the front and in Russian hands. However, it is also telling that Russian TV crews could not take any footage at the formerly held train station or the northern end of the town with its distinctive church (as shown several days ago). The below map shows what can be regarded as surely under Russian control in the city, taking into account the above stated reasons (e.g. safe to record by Russian TV, safe roads to get their plus the lack of real frontline positions).

who controls what

overall situation map

Conclusions

So what can be concluded from the available footage?

1. There is still no proof that Ukrainian forces control any territory in or around Vuhlehirs’k. Due to the lack of available footage, recorded by the Ukrainian army or embedded media branches, the claim that “heavy fighting is ongoing across the city” can not be verified, however also not totally falsified. It is possible that Ukrainian units are still fighting inside the town, but such claim should be backed by at least one datable and geolocationable picture or video.

2. Russian forces hold major parts of the city. The analyzed footage shows that Russian forces still have a foothold in Vuhlehirs’k. Despite being hit hard by Ukrainian artillery and missiles, their presence in the west, center and thus surely also in the south can be verified.

3. It remains unclear, how much exactly the Russian army controls of the town. As stated above, the observed footage lacks the final proof, Russian forces control the entire regarded town, despite several indication is there, this might be the case. However, the situation at the real frontline seems to be regarded as too dangerous to film for Russian media or there are other reasons, why the Russian leadership is not willing to publish footage from the northern and eastern parts of Vuhlehirs’k.

Last but not least, two more images from the latest footage should be considered. The first shows what appears to be a unexploded BM-27 missile, stuck in the mud, just beside the destroyed T-64. It is not unreasonable to infer that the Ukrainian army is shelling the Russian-held center (and possibly other parts) of the town Vuhlerhirs’k with 220 mm calibre missiles from the type “Uragan” despite the certain possibility that civilians may still be residing inside the town. Footage of such an attack could be seen in the January 29 footage and the fact that the Ukrainian army is “covering” the Russian invaders in the town is emphasized almost daily by the Ukrainian army command.

BM-27

Unexploded BM-27

The second picture is another piece of evidence that no one but the regular Russian army is leading the fight vs. Ukrainian forces across Donbas. It shows the hit wreckage of a Russian army Ural-4320 truck, still bearing the typical unit identification mark at the vehicle’s bumper. This is another reminder to European media that no “separatists” are battling the Ukrainian army, but the armed forces of the Russian Federation. Also and especially at the battlefield of Vuhlehirs’k.

ural 4320

Russian army Ural-4320

Please support my work, producing independent and fact-based analysis on the situation in Ukraine with 1$ per month or more. Click here.

Update

Pictures that appeared after this article was published indeed show, queuing civilians were likely asked to do so, facing the pick-up point from the north and the rail tracks. However it appears they originally came from the south east, so from the city itself. They were probably asked to take this “odd” 400 meter detour to keep the main road clear for other refugee cars and military vehicles passing by. This means that the chance, some of them were only “moved there” for any purpose is much less likely. – New facts bring new insights. That’s the way it is.

detour

Route of fleeing civilians towards the buses and trucks

The Ukrainian line of defense further collapses – the fall of Nikishyne

The situation around the Ukrainian city of Debaltseve remains extremely difficult to assess with different sources – even of the same side – announcing totally different situation reports, especially from the embattled town of Vuhlehirsk. While the Russian side claims, it not only holds the town, but extended its controlled territory some 4 km to the north, taking the village of Kalynivka and controlling the M03, effectively closing the pocket around Debaltseve, Ukrainian sources paint a sharply different picture of the situation. Depending on the respective source, there is either still Ukrainian resistance and fighting inside Vuhlehirsk or the city was lost with Ukrainian forces remaining in control of the surrounding areas, further preventing the Debaltseve trap to finally snap shut, trapping more than 5000 Ukrainian troops.

However, what was confirmed by both sides today is the fall of Nikishyne in the far south of the Ukrainian bridgehead. Though, Nikishyne at a first glance might look like and unimportant small village in the middle of nowhere and despite the fact that Ukrainian forces only held the northern edge of it since September last year, its fall is significant.

Together with Mius and partly Chornukhyne, Nikishyne was one of the three inhabited points, where the Ukrainian army built up a thin but strong (as without an alternative) line of defense south and south east of Debaltseve. The below map shows the situation from today, already including the reported territorial losses at all three defense points over the last 24 hours (especially the loss of Nikishyne).

Nikishyne

The defensive line was established 5 months ago and reinforced since then. There is virtually no fortified fallback level between Nikishyne and Debaltseve plus capturing one of the three strongpoints opens the flank to the respective two other ones, possibly leading to a chain reaction in military setbacks.

First Russian footage from Nikishyne showed the village from a drone above – an increasingly popular tool by Russian media to prove their claims – as well as the administrative building in the center of the settlement. And indeed, this footage made it possible to verify the location.

drone Nikishyne

Nikishyne from above

Shortly after more Russian media footage was published, once again proved that regular army main battle tanks (of the type T-64BV) were involved in the storming operation.

T-64BV

T-64BV in Nikishyne

At the same time, more footage showed that the Ukrainian line of defense north of the village consisted of a fortified trenches system, some BMP armored vehicles and anti tank guided missiles weapons. However, different from the (most probable) fall of Vuhlherisk, 2 days ago, today Ukrainian forces were not willing to withdraw until the last moment, leading to the destruction and capture of the majority of the used equipment and several armored vehicles by the Russian side.

bmp

Destroyed and captured Ukrainian weapons

The apparent order to hold the position at any price is another indication of the importance of this outpost 12 km south east of Debaltseve which was at the same time the closest point to the important Russian-occupied cities of Thorez and Shakhtarsk, Ukraine held (until today).

While I cannot emphasize enough that all analysis made here, is based on footage and reports, rather than “hard facts” (which are simply not available at the moment) and that we are still looking at a more or less dynamic situation, I tried to create a (rough) situation map for February 1 2015 for Debaltseve and the surrounding areas, which is shown below.

map 1.2.2015

situation map

How obscure the situation still is can be illustrated with fresh geolocated footage, showing “an Ukrainian army position at a mine near Vuhlehirsk burning”. The mine is right in the middle of the territory, claimed to be taken by Russian troops so far, proving there is – for sure! – still a certain degree of inaccuracy within the general view, also affecting my creted maps from intel analysis.

mine

Ukrainian-held mine?!

While keeping circumstances and uncertainties like this in mind, the above situation map around Debaltseve can be taken as an approximate starting point to assess the current military situation in the area as of today. Once again, the main conclusion of such assessment can only be: Considering the current setting in and around the Ukrainian bridgehead while keeping up a purely defensive strategy can and will only lead to total defeat in the area. The fall of Nikishyne – a strongly fortified and fiercely defended strategical position in the overall defense of Debaltseve – might only by another piece in a larger puzzle. However, it perfectly fits the bigger picture and must be yet another reminder that there are only two possible options to continue: Withdraw and give up the entire bridgehead of Debaltseve … or change tactics and switch to most severe offensive operations between Stakhanov and Horlivka (for now), like Ukraine’s interior minister demanded it today.