Silent Advance Part III – Russian forces advance towards Avdeevka

Over the last months – before and after the signature of the “Mins 2 peace treaty” – daily reports of shelling and small arms attacks on the Ukrainian town of Avdeevka, 3 km north of Donetsk, appeared. However, the Ukrainian army never reported of territorial advances by enemy forces and thus own losses in land possession and defensive positions of the 35.000 inhabitants city, the biggest frontline town, directly bordering occupied Donbas.

However, recent geolocated footage of Russian forces prove, also on this front, Ukraine is silently conceding land to the invasion army while claiming its forces hold the front since the fall of Debaltseve around February 20.

Unfortunately, there is not much footage coming from the hot spot fighting areas North of Donetsk, mostly because it is life threatening to record it in the “triangle of death” between Avdeevka, Spartak and Opytne. Thus, beside several written reports, the last geolocable footage from the area appeared in early February, when Russian forces pushed Ukrainian defenders back from the “passenger carload depot” train station, bordering Spartak to the east.

spartak

Since then, the front seemed to have stabilized, not because of the – mostly “Minsk 2” imperative to not further advance, which is widely ignored by the Russian side, but because of the geographical circumstances, namely the open fields and rural landscape between Donetsk and Avdeevka, hampering unrecognized military movement in the area. This was a big luck for the Ukrainian side as the forest directly south of the inhabited part of Avdeevka offer a perfect launch pat for sabotage missions and bigger ground forces moves. Given the early February setting, approaching enemy forces could be spotted and addressed by snipers, tanks or even indirect artillery fire, which was an important precondition for a successful defense of Avdeevka against the backdrop of further Russian territorial aspeirations.

before

All these advantages disappeared since then. Geolocated and analyzed footage from April 28 shows Russian forces not just crossed the plain between Donetsk and Avdeevka, but also built (at least) one “bridgehead” on its northern side, just along the railway tracks. Hopes that these troops were only reconnaissance teams were short-lived when further footage from the area appeared, revealing bunkers and tranches, established in the area. It is not clear since when, these forces are stationed in the area, but the April 28 “good news” from Russian invasion media that they approached Ukrainian forces until 200 meters and a seemingly southwards oriented sand back installation, indicate the takeover took place during the last days, possibly coinciding with a Russian Grad missile attack in the area (strictly forbidden by the Minsk treaty). Although there is no more footage from the area, it must be assumed from the three available videos and the behavior of troops, seen in it, that other Ukrainian forward positions have also fallen meanwhile and there is little fear among filmed units at the front to be counterattacked from anywhere else than the north and possibly north west.

Thus, the situation now looks – once again – much more gloomy for Ukrainian defenders, which – under daily small arms, mortar, artillery and Grad attacks seem to have left their forward positions along the February front. These withdrawals and – obviously – no attempts to recaptured the “Minsk-lost” territory have not just political implications (the weakness and timidity of the Ukrainian military and political leadership) but also severe strategic ones. Not just have the former Ukrainian-built trenches and bunkers fallen to Russian forces. Ukraine has also lost the ability to monitor and hence prevent larger scale military moves by the Russian invasion army in the area. The next Ukrainian-held territory now seems to be in Opytne and Avdeevka itself. Both are located beyond possible visual axes to overlook the area, which adds to the strategic advantage of the Russian side (see example picture and map below).

bridgeafter

In conclusion, the “Minsk-silently-captured” 4 km² and strategically important forward positions South of Avdeevka add – just like the captured territory East of Mariupol and across the Serversky-Donets near Stanytsia-Luhanska – to the traditional Russian territorial gains during “Minsk times”. By these – Ukrainian-concealed – frontline developments during peace times, Russians get into the position to strike harder and more effective as soon as they decide to resume their offensives with all available means. The result of such moves were visible around Donetsk airport and Debaltseve, where Russian forces were allowed to moved into positions during calmer periods and then achieved all their military goals during more hot ones. It remains to be seen, if the latest silent Ukrainian losses will play a role in future military confrontations. But given the fact that the Russian invasion command in Moscow already set its eyes on strategically-important Avdeevka and knowing, Russia is doing everything in its power to upgrade its hybrid army in Ukraine, its silent advances – respectively, Ukraine’s irresponsibly-silent losses – could bear fruit for it rather sooner than later.

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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.

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.

Revealed: Ukraine silently surrenders more territory under the Minsk 2 agreement

Lost territory after Minsk 2

During the first days of the Minsk 2 ceasefire deal, Ukrainian forces lost some 70% of the recently regained territory east of Mariupol. However, these losses were not that dramatic as Russian forces occupied the land over the previous 5 months at that time and forces of Regiment Azov managed to hold some of the soil to establish a new line of defense east of the coastal hub of Mariupol. Ukraine also lost the city of Debaltseve plus dozens of surrounding towns and villages after the 2nd Minsk document was signed – enough reason to nullify the entire fake treaty by the way. But all this happened during the first week of the signed “ceasefire and peace deal”, when emotions and battlefield actions still ran high. Also the strategic value of all losses during that week were manageable, given the fact that Debaltseve was mostly encircled at this time anyway and the focus in the south lies on Mariupol and not villages like Pavlopil or Kominternove.

Repetition of mistakes 

At the same time, the events that took place during the last 5 days around the strategically important north eastern frontline town of Stanytsia Luhanska must be called “dramatic” and are mostly comparable to what happened during the Minsk 1 “ceasefire” deal around the new terminal of Donetsk airport. Russian forces used the time to close in on the terminal, occupying places just 50 meters away and laid ground for their offensive in January, which finally reached its goal to entirely take the strategic and symbolic airport.

Where is Stanytsia Luhanska located and why is it so important?

Stanytsia Luhanska is a former 12.000 inhabitants town which is located almost on the North Eastern very end of the Ukrainian-Russian front in the Donbas region. It’s fall would not only mean another settlement falling under Russian control, but the emergence of a strong Russian bridgehead beyond the Minsk 2 demarcation line river “Seversky Donets” and an extension of the direct Russian-Russian-occupied border inside Ukraine and thus the possibility for Russian troops to bring more reinforcements directly from Russia to the front inside Ukraine and push more effectively towards northern Luhansk region.

Unbenannt

Until now, the town and its surrounding villages were in the comfortable situation of being located just north of the frontline-river Seversky Donets, which as a natural barrier stopped the Russian advance back in August 2014 and was – also therefore – so far defended with all necessary means by the Ukrainian army and its volunteer allies. This changed after the Minsk 2 agreement.

Futile trust in the Russian side

Ukrainian leaders – once again – were shortsighted and naive enough to pull back their forces from the river, relying on the Russian adherence to the Minsk agreement. Admittedly: Crossing bridges over a RIVER, defined as a common border, is the most flagrant and visible violation of a peace treaty imaginable and there can be some confidence, no halfway reliable partner – even enemy – would violate an agreement in such blatant way, if he wants to be taken by his word in ANY future negotiations. However, the Ukrainian side once again seems to have forgotten who we are talking about, namely the Russian expansionist regime under its ruthless leadership.

Not even 5 weeks after signing the Minsk 2 treaty, the Russian invasion command in Moscow decided to ignore the agreed on demarcation line and cross the Seversky Donets river at two points, not just to control strategically important bridgeheads for now, but also to have a springboard for their – surely already planned – attack on the town and wider northern Luhansk region in the coming months.

Losing the first bridgehead

As a logic consequence (of their “not-before-Kiev” satisfied territorial aspirations in neighboring Ukraine), Russian forces crossed the – unguarded – railway bridge west of Stanytsia Luhanska on March 16, establishing a well-fortified bridgehead on the eastern riverside, some 1100 meters from the town itself. Ukrainian forces realized the crossing of the river, but were – “in accordance with the Minsk agreement” – not allowed to attack the Russian corps and re-establish the agreed-on Minsk demarcation line. Instead, they “went to the militants and asked them to return to their side of the river”, which must be described as beyond naivete. While the talks attempt and the threat to recapture the area by force was first announced by the governor of Luhansk region, these aspects were later removed from the official news release, likely b/c the leadership in Kiev ordered a total silence and no reaction on the events.

railway bridge

No military response – not even an official complaint to the signers of the Minsk 2 deal or the OSCE – happened and the newly established line of contact on the wrong side of the river was simply pretended to never have happened in Ukrainian policy and media announcements since then.

Losing the second bridgehead

Three days later on March 19, news of a battle at another bridge, south of Stanytsia Luhanska emerged, with the official statement saying the bridge was “completely destroyed” by a large explosion, indicating this explosion was triggered to prevent the repetition of the March 16 events (described above), some kilometers to the north west.

However on the next day, March 20, Russian TV accompanied a (pro-)Russian fighter walked over the bridge, not only showing, Ukrainian forces had abandoned their side of the river and there were no defenders left, but also making it possible to geolocate the exact cut of the bridge which is not – as claimed by the Ukrainian side – over the water, but well into the Ukrainian-controlled side of the river and thus not stopping a technically advanced enemy force at all.

bridge cut

Final conclusions on the situation could be drawn today, when Ukraine’s Channel 5 sent a  camera team to the region, proving that the incredible had happened. The Ukrainian army completely withdrew from near the river bridge south of the town and “Luhansk People’s Republic” / Russian forces had established yet another bridgehead on the northern bank of the river,now controlling two of the four bridges, connecting occupied Luhansk with the still-free part in the area.

2nd bridgehead

Further geolocated Ukrainian TV footage showed that badly equipped and low-numbering Ukrainian forces withdrew some 1100 meters from the newly established Russian bridgehead, just as witnessed at the western railway bridge crossing.

Strategic consequences

Summarizing the strategic situation in the area reveals a gloomy outlook. There are now two Russian bridgeheads on the northern / eastern / Ukrainian side of the river, which saved the Ukrainian military of being overrun since more than 7 months. For no understandable reason, the Ukrainian military and political leadership decided to give up its largest strategic advance on the front, allowing the already superior invasion army to build springboards to Stanytsia Luhanska and thus nearby Shchaystya  as well as Novoaidar little more north.

2 bridgeheads

While the southern bridgehead can be used to bring in infantry troops (at least until the car bridge is repaired), the western occupied railway bridge can be used to send heavy weapons like tanks over the river. Beside those obvious advantages, the Ukrainian side also bargained away the possibility to monitor the river itself, checking for pontoon bridges to be established by Russian army sappers (as seen before). The losses themselves and no military attempts to regain the two lost positions must be called absolutely irresponsible from a military as well as political point of view. Beside the dramatic change of the military initial situation on the ground, it remains once again a riddle, if the Ukrainian political and military leadership is deliberately suicidal and actively trying to put more of its soil under Russian control or completely incompetent, making exactly those tactical errors (again and again) that worsen its situation in the gravest possible direction.

OSCE “at work”

Last but not least, today’s footage by Ukrainian Channel 5 again showed the uselessness of the current OSCE mission to Eastern Ukraine. The TV team approached the newly established Russian ( “LNR”) checkpoint, which was obviously on the wrong side of the Minsk 2 – fixed demarcation line, together with at least one OSCE monitors jeep. When the OSCE monitors saw what happened from their car (from almost 500 meters away), they decided to turn around and not check for further details or – how odd would this be?! – ask the Russian forces to stick to the Minsk 2 ceasefire and demarcation line agreement and return to their side of the river.

osce

In the end, nobody seems to be really unhappy with the very recent Russian advances over the Seversky Donets and thus over the agreed on Minsk 2 demarcation line. Not the Russian side, not the Ukrainian side and not the neutral monitors. … Which is bound to end in disaster.

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.

Fool me twice … Russian troops take large parts of Debaltseve

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update

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

pow

Ukrainian POW near Debaltseve