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

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

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

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

russian railways

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

Unbenannt

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

Where does all this lead?

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

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

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The battle of Shyrokyne – escalation is looming

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

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

Sopyne

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chechens

This development implies several implications:

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

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

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

Chechen Ukrainian fighters

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

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.

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.

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.

Geolocation and analysis of today’s battles inside Vuhlehirs’k

Most recent footage of two Russian camera teams provide unique and revealing insights into the current ground property situation and the course of the battles in Vuhlehirs’k. To understand the latest development in the battle for the town and give an (as most as possible) objective picture of it, I geolocated all available footage piece by piece, gaining insightful and partly surprising results.

Snipers at the southern gas station

The first footage is mainly located in the very south west of the city, only 100 meters from the town’s entrance sign along the M04 / E50. The camera team met the Russian troops at the N-W former Ukrainian army checkpoint. The next scene shows them approaching the M04 from the east, coming from a small street and not the main road, which would have been the fastest way. This way seems not to be safe to walk. They are crossing the M04, running and obviously afraid of snipers in the area.

fuel1

Only when seeking shelter in some of the buildings nearby, they (the Russian media guys and soldiers) relax. As soon as they enter an open area with a wider sight line, they almost panic, being sure, there are Ukrainian forces in the area. Another scene shows them returning to the east of the city, starting on the other side of the read, this time with the gas station in the background. There is not much shooting audible, but the situation seems tense nonetheless. During the video, a former Ukrainian position as well as one to two dead Ukrainian troops can be seen but also seemingly disabled Russian vehicles, namely a BMP-1 and an Ural truck.

fuel2

I mapped the entire ways, the footage shows with the “outbound trip” marked in read and the way back marked in orange.

fuel map

Battle for the apartment block

Another Russian state TV team is filming in the geographical center of the city, being embedded with Russian troops, storming and Ukrainian army observation and sniper position in the highest residential building of the town, situated among the only agglomeration of large apartment blocks in Vuhehirs’k. The first scene is a brutal as unsurprising with a RF armed forces T-72 firing shell after shell into the eleven-story building, making sure, Ukrainian fire from the building ceases before the further advance.high rise 1

Shortly after, Russian ground forces advance towards the apartment block from the north, using classic motorized infantry cover tactics, moving within the protection of a BTR-80.

high rise 2

After arriving between the high rise buildings, they enter the buildings searching for surviving Ukrainian troops. There is no shooting audible, so those troops might have fled or be dead by then. Finally the officer of the Russians is interviewed. I marked this picture as it was my starting point of geolocation (comparing it with a picture from the same house on Google Earth).

high rise 3

The final map geolocates the entire path the Russian troops took to approach and storm the apartment complex, revealing further insights into the who owns what across the city.

map high rise

What does all this tell about the current situation in Vuhlehirs’k?

Mainly that the tactical situation is much more complicated than previously thought. The Ukrainian claim that they recaptured – or rather: re-infiltrated – many areas of the town after January 30 seems to be accurate and the Russian narrative of “full control” proven wrong (by their own footage). At the same time it can be once again concluded that Ukrainian troops in Vuhlehirs’k are severely outgunned, outnumbered and generally in a rather defensive position plus losing territory – once again, one might say. While Russian forces use BMP, BTR and main battle tanks inside the city limits, Ukrainian troops seem to rely on light vehicles (as can be seen in the footage) and light infantry units.

Finally the above and previously analyzed footage from earlier today allows to create a very current and much more founded map of today’s ground property situation among the involved parties. It shows that the situation is more complicated than 4 days ago when Russian forces controlled 90%-100% (also admitted by Ukrainian govt sources) and Ukrainian reinforcements have indeed entered almost all parts of the city. However, it also shows, they are under serious threat of losing it once again. Also the fact that Ukrainian troops seem to be mainly located in the center and southern part without heavy weapons or a stable resupply line contains the great threat of another encirclement by getting cut off from the main force in Debaltseve to the east and Artemovsk to the north west… The battle for the town continues.

map 3.2.2015

Estimate map for 03.02.2015, based on analyzed footage