Silent advances reloaded: Ukraine loses another village East of Mariupol

In the recent days, fighting in Eastern Ukraine intensified once again with the Russian side, starting the next round of (previously-announced) escalation. 18 Ukrainian soldiers were killed and wounded over the last 24 hours without any political actor – neither in Europe or Kiev – calling Russia’s current “Minsk 2 bluff” and declaring the treaty as broken and consequences to be implemented immediately.

But this appeasing silence doesn’t only cover up dead Ukrainian troops and daily Minsk 2 violations by the Russian side (using violence in principal and weapons, forbidden by the signed treaty) It also conceals more territorial losses by the Ukrainian side. I documented and proved the loss of Kominternove, Pavlopil, Pyshchevyk, half of Shyrokyne and two bridgeheads on the Ukrainian side of the Serversky-Donets river, just shortly after the ink under the Minsk 2 treaty dried. But the Russian advance continues with one focus being Mariupol, on which the invasion army is creepingly closing in, meter by meter over the last two months.

The last position that fell under their control is the village of Vodyane, located 2 km to the N-E of Lebedyns’ke and 7 km East of the Mariupol city limits itself. The last solid confirmation that Vodyane was under Ukrainian forces’ control appeared at March 2 and March 7 when the Ukrainian army command of sector M reported small arms and mortar attacks on the village. While there were some more reports about fighting in the area, my map from March 21 raised first (slight) doubt about who controls the village, leaving the possibility that it turned into “no man’s land” between the two parties.

Then yesterday, April 13, final confirmation came from Regiment Azov that the village was not just what the Ukrainian military calls “located in a buffer zone”, but fell back under full Russian control and now serves as an artillery firing position for 122 mm pieces, most probably Russian army D-30 systems. The Azov tank commander also said, Ukrainian forces had to attack Russian positions in the village with heavy weapons to silence the artillery fire for the moment. The “Before and After” map below show the situation as it looked before the confirmation of the loss and now, based on an informed estimate and the inclusion of all available sources.

before after

The severeness of the territorial situation becomes even more obvious / frightening, when comparing what Regiment Azov and other Ukrainian forces recaptured from the Russian occupation army in early February and what is left of these gains now after the fall of Vodyane.

mariupol 14.4.

Map source: http://slovoidilo.ua/ Own marks and insertion of Vodyane village

As it can be seen in the map, the buffer zone, Ukrainian forces created in their 3-day blitz in February to safeguard Mariupol is almost nonexistent by now. All territorial losses appeared after the Minsk 2 treaty was signed by all involved parties and are downplayed by the Western/Ukrainian side to “further deescalate the situation”. In point of fact, the opposite is the case. It remains to be seen how the situation in the last two Ukrainian strongholds in the area, Lebedyns’ke and Shyrokyne, develops over the coming weeks and months. However the Russian intention to get back into striking distance of Mariupol seems clear as well as realizable as long as Ukraine and the west hushes up the seriousness of the situation there and along the entire front.

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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.

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.

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.

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 Russian invasion continues – latest military developments in Ukraine

Today on the 4th of January 2015, we are 27 days into the Ukrainian government’s latest initiative of the “silent mode” – the latest additional appeasement measure after the “Minsk agreement” from September last year. Still, there is no visible let up in Russian attacks on the front line all across occupied Donbas, reaching from southern Mariupol until Stanitsia Luhanska on the north eastern end of the new de facto border between Russia and Ukraine. The number of daily Russian attacks on Ukrainian held towns and military positions slightly decreased from approximately 40-50 a day to now 20-30, however this is rather due to the fact that Russian forces now decide when and where to hit, being able to concentrate their forces on the target areas, not being afraid anymore of Ukrainian counterattacks or even return fire after their assaults. Just during the first 4 days of 2015, Ukraine saw 2 civilians and 1 soldier killed in fighting, while at least 7 civilians and 12 more Ukrainian troops were injured. Hot spots of the fighting remain the same as before December 9, meaning the Bakhmutka highway in northern Luhansk province with its Ukrainian strongholds Krymske, Zolote and Hirske being targeted daily, the town of Stanitsia Luhanska on the (old) Ukrainian-Russian border and Popasna, opposite Pervomaisk. Yes, the number of Grad missile attacks decreased, but more direct artillery, mortar and small arms encounters remain a daily appearance with civilians as well as Ukrainian armed forces casualties. In Donetsk region, the airport of Donetsk city as well as its bridgeheads in Pisky, Opytne and partly Avdeevka are subject to daily shelling and fire attacks, while it remains unclear, if Terminal 1 of Donetsk airport is still accessible via Ukrainian.held territory or the two allowed resupply routes via Russian-held territory signal an even worse situation. It is chilling that Ukrainian troops at the airport – the so called “Cyborgs” – claim, they were not rotated and resupplied with arms and ammunition since more than 8 weeks.

Rus flags

Picture shows flags of “Novorossiya” on top of Terminal 2, only meters away from Terminal 1, held by the Ukrainian army

A rather new development in terms of Russian attack focus areas stretches along the Kalmius river, north of Mariupol. This river is the official demarcation line, agreed on by all parties in the Minsk memorandum. However, as we know Russian forces and their local proxies do not accept their own signatures under the paper, it is not astonishing they are willing to extend their area of control beyond that natural border. Thus, attacks started on January 1st with all sorts of weapons, even face to face encounters, trying to push back Ukrainian forces – mainly from the Regiment Azov national guard – and build bridgeheads on the left side of the river. Between January 2 and 4, Orlivske, Hnutove and Hranitne came under attack from Russian forces.

Kalmius

Map shows locations and used weapons, acc. to the Ukrainian defenders

Beyond concrete attacks on the Ukrainian line of defense, multiple other worrying developments were recorded, mainly a – partly violent – replacement of Russian “volunteer” (former army) mercenaries with more Moscow-loyal forces, accepting the high command from the Kremlin and behaving less “wild” on Ukrainian ground. Despite only little facts available, it seems those Russian invaders, trying to build a “New Russia” – “Novorossiya” – are fought and replaced by the more “legitimate” pro-Moscow regimes, namely the “People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk”. While one Russian ringleader, called “Batman”, was killed by LC regime forces, others of his group swore to fight both, the local regimes as well as the Ukrainian army from now on. Ukrainian reports say up to 23 militants from both sides were killed in recent infighting, seemingly supported by aftermath pictures.

batman

Aftermath of LC-Novorossiya infighting in Luhansk region

While those, not behaving like Moscow wants it, are sent back to Russia or – if not willing to – obliterated without mercy, those, who obey to the Kremlin leaders’ will are rewarded with the latest Russian army military hardware, namely the BPM-97 “Vystrel”. Those apc, only produced in Russia and only used by Russian border troops, are the latest hint that the very leadership of the Russian Federation has nothing in mind that could equal any kind of retraction from its offensive position in Ukraine.

BPM-97

The BPM-97 in “war games” in Luhansk province

At the same time, it becomes once more explicit that Russia – just like with its T-72B1 or T-72B3 – would never give its latest armored personal carriers to any “rebel” faction in some renegade region abroad, but would only allow a free “export” of its 2000s hardware with qualified and loyal – Russian Army – personal. That this personal is active as never before in Ukraine can on the one hand be recognized by multiple reports:  Even the Ukrainian NSDC, which has a long history of downplaying Russian involvement in the conflict, fearing a cut off from international funds, said on January 3 that hundreds of Russian Federation troops entered Ukraine lately. Other reports from local witnesses and media reported for instance that 300 Russian soldiers had taken over Horlivka at the frontline with Ukraine, sending “DNR” forces to the hinterland. On the other hand, more and more evidence turns up that Russian soldiers from the Far East, seen approaching from Ulan Ude and elsewhere in November, are now fighting in Donbas, like in Horlivka as mentioned above.

horlivka

Far East Russian soldier in Horlivka on January 1

Last but not least, the Russian army (ab)used the Ukrainian “silence mode” to build up a working military logistic and infrastructure network in Donbas, now being able to (at least for a while) repulse any kind of military attack from the Ukrainian mainland. Part of this network are air defense systems and backup bases in Donbas hinterland (10km or more from the front line), like this base with dozens of BMP-1 in a former public transport depot, recently recovered and geolocated by me in Krasnyi-Luch.

krasnyi-luch

Russian base in Krasnyi Luch

In conclusion, there is no indication at all of Russia or its two local puppet regimes, having any intention to stick to the signed Minsk agreement. Hence, there is no sign on the horizon that the Ukrainian president’s peace plan, ceasefire or “silent mode” were anything close to be working in Ukraine’s favor. Therefor it is up to the Ukrainian government to chose if it wants to further stand idle and watch how a powerful Russian invasion force is taking shape on Ukrainian soil, able to hit hard when it where it chooses — OR if it wants to regain the initiative in the conflict by not allowing militants to strike at will and unpunished, killing Ukrainian citizens and soldiers and – slowly but steadily – expanding their controlled territory inside Ukraine and further shrinking a young, but proud and – if willing – also punchy European nation. Did you have a good read?! Please support my work with 1$ per month or more!