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

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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

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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.

The beginning of the end – Russian forces take Vuhlehirs’k

It comes as no surprise that yesterday around noon, strong Russian army forces started their so far heaviest assault on the 7800 souls town of Vuhlehirs’k, the second biggest town within the so-called “Debaltseve bridgehead”, a territory held by the Ukrainian army and volunteer corps between the Russian-ruled “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. A look at the official “ATO map” shows the strategic significance of the town, not only being the last fortress between the Russian military hub of Horlivka and Ukrainian-held Debaltseve, but also key to the only open resupply route between Debaltseve and Artemivsk, further to the west. The only road, the M03, runs just 5 km to the north east of the town and whoever controls all of Vuhlehirs’k also controls the movement between some 5000 Ukrainian troops east of it and the rest of Ukraine (map).

ato map

tactical map

Hence, it was an imperative for Russian troops to capture this town, before starting the direct attack on Debaltseve. As a matter of fact, controlling Vuhlehirs’k and the territory to its north could even avoid a direct assault on Debaltseve as a lasting siege would force thousands on Ukrainian troops to surrender without a fight, running out of food and ammunition. The general Russian strategy in the area was also described in my article from January 27, predicting “the fall of Debaltseve is inevitable […] if there is no radical change in tactics”. As there is no sign on the horizon of this change to come, regular Russian army forces began their assault from Horlivka in the west and Kayutyne in the south on January 29. While on this day, only little footage was published, showing that they overran the outer defensive line of Vuhlehirs’k, losing at least one T-72B1 and taking several Ukrainian soldiers POW, early January 30, Russian state TV published extensive video footage of the battle and its aftermath. Already on the way to Vuhlehirs’k, many Russian army T-72 main battle tanks could be seen, proving this is no further faltering skirmish, but indeed the long anticipated major push, military forces would conduct from the daily resupplied and reinforced areas north east of Donetsk city.

T-72

T-72 on the road to Vuhlehirs’k

The following footage shows the brutality of the battle that took place on the western and southern entrances of Vuhlehirs’k, where Ukrainin forces put up fierce resistance and destroyed more Russian tanks (see picture below) and likely also many troops, which are not shown on Russian footage, but were outgunned and defeated in the end, allowing the Russian army to enter the center of the town.

T-64BV

destroyed Russian T-64BV (no Ukr IFF)

Next scenes of the analzed footage show the very center of Vuhlehirs’k, where fighting still took place and residential buildings around the main intersection of the M04 highway were burning. Some Ukrainian troops seemed to still resist as shooting was aubilbe and Russian forces were still in a cautios and nervous mood.

Russian soldier

Russian soldiers in the center of the city

When the situation calmed down a little bit, Russian TV teams were able to take wider shots of the area, making it possible to geolocate and thus verify the footage. This enabled a clear confirmation of the fact that – at least yesterday afternoon – Russian forces were present in the center of the city, dominating its vital route to Debaltseve itself.

city

Geolocation of the Russian advance

At the same time, this geolocation and taking into account the previously analyzed footage made the creation of a strategic map of the battle and ground possession status possible – again – for this time yesterday afternoon. It shows that Russian forces indeed stormed Vuhlehirs’k from Kayutyne just south of it and a long the railway to the west, so from Horlivka and its suburbs. Both (footage analysis-based) assault directions were later confirmed by Ukrainian journalists and soldiers on the ground.

map

Strategic map of the battle

The crucial question remains, what happened after yesterday afternoon. While the Russian propaganda claims, it caputred most of the town and the battle is effectively over, various Ukrainian sources paint totally different pictures of the situation. The commander of the well-known Ukrainian national guard force “Battalion Donbas” for example, said this morning on his facebook page that the town was lost. Shortly after, reports from journalists on the ground said, Ukrainian forces would hold the northern and eastern part of the town, starting from the train station. This version would perfectly correspond with the created map above. However in the afternoon, the Ukrainian government’s MP and interior ministry member Anton Gerashchenko claimed that entire Vuhlehirs’k was back under Ukrainian control due to “accurate artillery strikes and daring maneuvers of our tanks”. It is telling that this most official statement so far also claimed, Russian troops only managed to capture a “suburb” of the town yesterday, but were repulsed. A flagrant lie as this article has proven. But what really happened last night? Russian media footage shows intense Ukrainian multi launch rocket system attacks. On the center of Vuhlehirs’k – and on Russian troops stationed their overnight. However, what is not shown are Ukrainian tanks or ground troops re-entering the city or any fighting from the Russian side. Instead it ends with Russian tank drivers, showing the victory sign on broad daylight.

MLRS

MLRS attacks on Russian forces overnight

Despite the fact that it remains unproven if the latest scene really shows the day after or the time before the Ukrainian artillery / MLRS “counterattack” during the night, it must be doubted that the Ukrainian army either has the technical and manpower-related capabilities in the area to launch a counteroffensive on hundreds – if not thousands – of well-armed Russian troops in the town, enyjoing a steady flow of resupplies from Horlivka and Yenakijeve. Therefore, my final assessment of the claim would be that we are talking about the same “repelling” successes as were claimed for 5 days over the new terminal of  Donetsk airport. All turning out to be untrue.

Update —

Shortly after the article at hand was published (in the evening hours of January 30), Russian LifeNews brang a report from Vuhlehirs’k, proving that the city has entirely fallen to Russian army forces and Ukrainian counteroffensives – if there were any – totally failed. Video footage does not only show heavy tank and apc forces (T-64BV, T-72B1, BMP-2) inside the town today.

tanks

Russian tanks and apc

It also contains geolocatable footage of a church in the northern outskirts of the town, showing Russian forces pointing their rifles to the north and the LifeNews “journalist” (not!) reporting without cover from possible small arms fire. According to the LifeNews report, Ukrainian forces were pushed out of the town and are shelling it with mortars and artillery from Kalynivka in the north and Debaltseve. This seems to correspond with the footage itself.

geolocation

Geolocation in northern Vuhlehirsk

From a larger distance, the geolocated footage is evidence that Russian forces took over (at least) 90% of the town including the strategic train station, which was the front line earlier this morning according to this article (read above) and Ukrainian journalist reports.

map

city map

Looking at the powerful involved forces (dozens of tanks, apc and hundreds to thousands of Russian troops), there seems to be no chance the Ukrainian army will recapture the area (as it did not recapture ANY Russian-taken area since September last year). Knowing that the Russian forces are as quickly as possible moving northeastwards, it becomes clear where their aim lies. The target is to cut the M03 as soon as possible, creating a pocket with more than 5000 Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve. Looking at the speed of their advance, this might become true within days rather than weeks.

maplarge

regional map

End of the update —

In conclusion, I might sound once again like a broken record. I wrote 3 days ago “if there is no radical change in tactics by the Ukrainian side”, it will not only lose the “bridgehead” of Debaltseve, but entire Donbas. I continued warning that “purely defensive operations against an enemy with the fire – and man – power observed in eastern Ukraine during the last 4 weeks, leads to sustained territorial losses.” I have nothing to add to these statements beside calling upon the Ukrainian government once again: Act now or start digging trenches on the eastern outskirts of Kharkiv and Zaporizhia. Because this is where the current course of the fighting is leading sooner rather than later.

Hard evidence, the regular Russian army invades Ukraine

Over the last 72 hours, increaring reports of regular “Russian army” deployments inside Ukraine emerged, not only from blogging insiders and investigative homepages, but also from the Ukrainian president and army command themselves (a very rare move, despite the widely dominating verbal calming down attempts). Nonetheless, footage to prove such “new” statements was lagging over the first days, a fact, understandable under the current circumstances of the Moscow regime, not willing to uncover its full-scale military invasion into Ukraine. However since yesterday, January 22, several undeniable video sequences from different front sectors across Donbas emerged, undeniably supporting the Ukrainian intelligence reports.

1. The Grad-K in Donetsk

Most bulletproof evidence is the appearance of the most modern Russian army 2B26 Grad-K system mounted on a KamAZ-5350 chassis (pictures below) just a few kilometers from Donetsk airport. This refurbished BM-21 system was revealed in 2011 and delivered to the Russian armed forces from 2012. It is ONLY operated by the Russian army itself and there is no other source of such weapon system available.

Grad-K

The Grad-K in Donetsk

Further details are striking. The systems appears in Donetsk in fresh winter camouflage showing it was prepared for winter war and surely sent in under the current weather conditions. Also the “rebel” camera man pulls down his camera as soon as it leaves the line of 4 older BM-21, mounted on Ural-375D (a system, delivered in its hundreds by the Russian army to its proxies and forces in Donbas). He obviously has the orders to not film such system in that area and that time. However, he lifts it up 4 seconds too early clearing the sight of this 100% Russian army weapon system.

2. The BM-30 Smerch in Makeevka

In the evening of January 22, footage of a BM-30 MLRS system appeared, claimed to be taken in Makeevka, just a few kilometers east of Donetsk and less than 20 km to the nearest frontline. The BM-30 “Smerch” (also known as 9A52-2 Smerch-M) is the heaviest multi launch rocket system (MLRS) in its “family”, exceeding the smaller BM-21 and BM-27 in its caliber (300mm) and range (up to 90 km). Independent geolocations of the footage by several expertes (e.g. Dajey Petros and me) confirmed the the location exactly where it was reported to be, so (very) close to the frontline for a system with such operational range.

BM-30

The BM-300 in Makeevka

The system has never before been recorded in Russian-held territory for a simple reason: It was not there. While the Ukrainian army lost several weapon systems during the created boilers in August and September last year to Russian invaders, the BM-30 was always able to stay far behind the front due to its range and was never captured by “rebel” forces or the vast majority of Russian mercenaries and Russian army forces. Knowing that there is no credible narrative for the appearance of such heavy and exclusive system “in separatist hands”, the Russian invasion command abstained from sending the system to Ukraine over the following 4 “ceasefire” months, despite deploying thousands of other military vehicles like tanks, apc and smaller MLRS. However now that it goes “all in” and started an offensive to take entire Luhansk and Donetsk regions (and even more), the Russian army command decided to not spare this long range, deadly tool of warfare anymore, no matter the fact that this is another 100% evidence, it is fighting in neighboring Ukraine.

3. More proof

There is much more (very) recent evidence that Ukrainian intelligence and all “real” / evidence-based experts are right, calling the latest developments a flagrant and open Russian aggression against its western neighbour. Just like the pictures of Russian Far East soldiers with green ribbon after taking Checkpoint 31 in northern Luhansk region, the secret recording of a 500+ troops Russian Army convoy, approaching the town of Stakhanov or footage of a military makeshift bridge, built by Russian sappers over a river in Luhansk with the help of a MT-55A AVLB. …

But all these “smoking guns” might be disputed and denied as “so or differently explainable”, despite all indication leading into the same (Eastern) direction. Meanwhile the two above mentioned cases, recorded over the last 24 hours, provide sufficient evidence, regular Russian army troops are not just “located all around Donbas, ready to move in” – like acknowledged by many western media and security sources – but fighting on all front sectors inside Ukraine, reinforcing and replacing its pre-existing invasion forces.

PS.

This article only lists NEW evidence that appeared over the last 24 hours and after the statement of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in Davos. Of course, multiple Russian-army-only equipment appearances over the last 7 months (T-72B3, T-72B1, BPM-97, GAZ-3937, BTR-82A  etc.) leave no doubt that it was and is the Russian army that exclusively supplies all anti-Ukrainian forces in the Donbas with weapons and exerts its surpreme command over them.