In the two weeks after the downing of Malaysian Airline’s MH-17 Ukrainian forces managed to regain control of the border and cut the territory held by the Russian led “rebels” in two. With its supply lines cut, the city of Donetsk was effectively surrounded.
The tightening of the noose around Donetsk was to include an assault on Ilovaisk, a town to the north east of Donetsk itself. The prospect of defeat, even by proxy, was not at all acceptable to the Kremlin. Putin decided to “send in the cavalry”. The resultant “Tragedy of the Ilovaisk Pocket” would continue to bear repercussions even a year later. Almost a year later the Ukrainian Armed Forces published a list of 366 KIA, 429 WIA, 158 MIA and 128 POW.
Intelligence reports had indicated that the town of Ilovaisk was weakly defended by the terrorists, but the reality proved to be far different. The Ukrainian team took about half of the town when they suddenly found themselves facing fierce fire from the enemy’s previously prepared reinforced positions. Nearby, Ukraine’s all volunteer Donbas battalion which was also involved in “tightening the noose” came upon uniformed Russian paratroop forces on the main road to Donetsk. In the resulting battle on 19 August 2014 the Ukrainians proved themselves to be their equal and even captured five of the enemy. At about this same time the first of many ersatz “humanitarian aid” convoys from Russia was making its way to Ukraine’s eastern border. Accompanying this convoy were troops of Russia’s elite Pskov Airborne Division.
On 24 August 2014, as President Poroshenko reviewed fresh recruits on Kyiv’s Khreshchatyk during the Independence Day celebrations, a force of four battalions or about 9,000 Russian troops crossed into Ukraine along the Donetsk oblast’ border. Lightly armed Ukrainian infantry found themselves face to face with Russian armour.
Those that were to tighten the noose around Donetsk in turn found themselves surrounded. Within a week all the territorial gains made by Ukrainian forces during the previous six were lost. In addition Russian forces seized territory to the south of Donetsk all the way to the Azov Sea. They were stopped on the very outskirts of the city of Mariupil. Several hundred Ukrainian troops found themselves caught in pockets far from the new front lines. But the Russian invaders were also bloodied, thus setting the stage for the “Minsk Protocol”, the first Minsk ceasefire agreement.
The Minsk Protocol was signed 5 September 2014 by OSCE
representative Heidi Tagliavini, former president of Ukraine and
Ukrainian representative Leonid Kuchma, Russian Ambassador to Ukraine
and Russian representative Mikhail Zurabov as well as representatives
of the so-called DPR and LPR, Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor
Plotnitsky. This ceasefire agreement included the following points:
1. To ensure an immediate bilateral ceasefire.
2. To ensure the monitoring and verification of the ceasefire by the OSCE.
3. Decentralisation of power, including through the adoption of the Ukrainian law “On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts”.
4. To ensure the permanent monitoring of the Ukrainian-Russian border and verification by the OSCE with the creation of security zones in the border regions of Ukraine and the Russian Federation.
5. Immediate release of all hostages and illegally detained persons.
6. A law preventing the prosecution and punishment of persons in connection with the events that have taken place in some areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.
7. To continue the inclusive national dialogue.
8. To take measures to improve the humanitarian situation in Donbass.
9. To ensure early local elections in accordance with the Ukrainian law “On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts”.
10. To withdraw illegal armed groups and military equipment as well as fighters and mercenaries from Ukraine.
11. To adopt a program of economic recovery and reconstruction for the Donbass region.
12. To provide personal security for participants in the consultations.
Lest we had forgotten that Putin’s reach was global, just 48hrs. after President Obama assured Estonians that the USA would defend their NATO ally, and on the very day that the Minsk Protocol was being signed, Russian agents kidnapped Estonian Security Service officer Eston Kohver from across the Estonian border. Today, nearly a year later Eston remains in Russia’s Lefortovo prison.
Point 4 of the Minsk Protocol would have created a wide demilitarized zone on both sides of the then current front lines. Neither side implemented that provision. Instead what followed were months of ongoing attempts to “straighten the lines”. This process reached its zenith in Russia’s attempts to take the Donetsk Airport Terminal. It began shortly after the “ceasefire” and continued for five more months. Examples of other targets are the town of Debaltsevo attacked on 21-22 September 2014 and Shchastya in the Luhansk oblast’ on 19 October 2014. Russian battlefield tactics had not changed since WW2. They showed that they were willing to accept levels of losses in personnel that would be shocking to western military men. By mid-October the total number of Russian regular enlisted men killed in action had reached 4360 according to some Russian estimates.
On 26 October 2014 Ukraine held Parliamentary elections to the Verkhovna Rada. Only the territories under occupation were unable to vote. The result was interpreted to be widespread support for the President’s coalition and his ongoing policies.
It is worthwhile at this point to diverge from the ground war and review the wordsmithing and pretense that allow the conflict to continue within its current (Ukrainian) boundaries. The first pretense is that the enemy are “local separatist” and “terrorists”. If one accepts this pretense then the war becomes simply an Anti-Terrorist Operation or ATO. This terminology is first of all very convenient for the leaders of western countries. It keeps the battles off the front pages and it allows for effective plausible deniability by national leaders. If there is no actual Russian aggression against a sovereign European state then there are no embarrassing questions nor pressures for leaders to act. Despite some sanctions for alleged Russian support of local separatists, it is business as usual for most western businessmen. On the other hand, this allows for shipment of military equipment to Ukraine (although so far only “non-lethal”) without the outward appearance of hostility towards the World’s number two nuclear power. For President Poroshenko and many of the business oligarchs that still rule Ukraine it also allows for business as usual. The pretense keeps Putin from sending in his air force, and by tacit agreement has kept Ukraine’s air force grounded. It allows Ukraine to continue to flow Russian natural gas through its pipelines to Western Europe. Even the flow of Ukrainian-made military hardware to Russia was not interrupted until well into the conflict. Ukraine has only recently imposed the kind of sanctions against Russia that the West has.
There is however an even more troubling implication in not implicating Russia directly in the war. A sticking point in the OSCE observer mission is that Ukraine, as the country requesting the mission, cannot contribute its own observers. Meanwhile, Russia, which has never been officially implicated in the violence, has not been barred from participating.
The presence of Russian monitors is a “direct legal consequence” of Ukraine’s failure to declare war. Even without Russian monitors the OSCE seemed to be firmly under the sway of Russian influence. This OSCE mission was originally based in the Ukrainian-controlled town of Debaltsevo, at least it was there until just prior to the Russian assault on the Debaltsevo salient. If Russia was a recognized party to the conflict, then of course there wouldn’t be any Russians participating in this mission, just as there aren’t any Ukrainians.
Even more troubling is the fact that certain Russian generals observe the Ukrainian lines as part of the OSCE observer mission by day and feed their information back to their General Staff by night. OSCE observer Major-General (one star), Lentsov had commanded a Russian peacekeeping brigade of 1,500 paratroopers (drawn from 76th and 98th airborne divisions) in Bosnia in 1996. Lentsov was given command of the 98th Airborne Division (Ivanovo). All these units are currently taking part in the invasion of Ukraine. On 18 December 2014, newly promoted Colonel-General Lentsov was approved by Putin as a candidate to command either a Russian Military District or unified strategic command in future (as it turned out, he would command the Russian operation in Ukraine). Maj Gen Aleksander Vyaznikov is the commander that formed a so called Peacekeeping force of several existing units in August, and presumably commanded them until recently. This turns out to be the Russian “Peacekeeping force” that so successfully adjusted the battlefield reality during that last week of August 2014.
The fighting for the Donetsk Airport Terminal reached its apogee on January 15, 2015. By then the Russians had given up on the pretense that their fighters were local separatists and again brought in their regular forces. The battle of the D.A.T. on that day is described in detail here Battle of the Donetsk Airport – Collapse of the Ceasefire Pretense . In short the Russian losses were 132 killed, 149 wounded, 12 MIA. Ukrainians lost 3 killed and 8 wounded.
Eventually on January 21, 2014 the skeletal remains of the Airport Terminal were collapsed by explosives, killing or trapping many of its defenders. There was no building left to hold. Remaining Ukrainian fighters withdrew but continued to control one side of the airport itself. The defense of the Airport had lasted 242 days. Total Ukrainian losses were close to 200 KIA and 500 WIA. The Russian losses were 1468 enlisted men killed in action, a further 1500-2000 irregulars killed in action and about 40 units of armour destroyed.
It is worth analysing the radical differences in strategy between the Kremlin and the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The Kremlin measures success in the classical manner, in terms of acreage of ground gained. But after the Ilovaisk debacle of late August, many in Ukraine’s leadership realized that absolutely any and every offensive of their own would be immediately countered by the rapid introduction of additional Russian forces from just across the border. For that purpose Putin has maintained no less than 40,000 and usually over 53,000 troops on Ukraine’s (virtual) eastern border. The Ukrainian success in gaining ground during July and the first two weeks of August 2014 could never be repeated.
Ukraine cannot win this war in the Donbas. It can only win this war in Moscow. If the number of Muscovite casualties becomes large enough, the anguish and anger of their families will spill into the streets with uncontrollable results. This is how the Evil Empire’s Afghan adventure ended. In fact that is one reason the USSR disintegrated. A repeat of this scenario is very realistic, which is why in this hybrid war Putin is denying the existence of a war and is going to great lengths to conceal the casualty count and the actual bodies themselves. Mobile crematoria serve this purpose well. The deaths of enlisted men are harder to conceal or explain away, but the demise of the various mercenary volunteer “lost tourists” can be totally ignored. The Ukrainian tactic by force of circumstance is and must be the generation of maximal numbers of KIA, of the infamous Russian “Cargo 200”. It is doubly effective if this Cargo 200 consists of Russian enlisted men.
Ukrainian forces have been able to lure the Russians into attempting to take certain objectives “at all costs”. The Donetsk Airport Terminal (built in support of the 2012 Euro Cup) was the first. The few dozen undefeatable “cyborgs” that rotated in and out of the building’s wreckage were the cheese in the mousetrap. They were also the artillery spotters. The vastly greater proportion of the killing was performed by Ukrainian artillery and rocket batteries in nearby Pisky and Avdiivka.
Similarly the town of Debaltsevo was a flytrap that generated a constant tally of daily Cargo 200’s. The Debaltsevo salient projecting over 16km deep into “separatist” territory was an insult to the Kremlin. The Ukrainian presence there was a vestige of their successful offensive of the previous summer; a remnant of the corridor that they had sliced in early August between the LPR and the DPR. Notably the BUK missile battery that had shot down MH-17 had been transported by road through Debaltsevo. The pro-Russian forces constantly took endless casualties in the open fields between the Ukrainian artillery batteries in Svetlodarsk and those in Debaltsevo itself.
On 11 February 2015 the conflict was to shift to the negotiating table in Minsk. On the battlefield this meant that the “separatist” forces would launch a desperate attempt to “straighten out the line” in the territory around the transportation hub of Debaltsevo prior to any ceasefire. The first battle of the Debaltsevo pocket lasted from 23 January to 2 February. The battle is described in detail here: The Battle of the Debaltsevo Bulge . As a result of this battle, the Russian forces lost 398 KIA, 628 WIA, 109 MIA, 37 tanks, 21 units of artillery, 4 units of specialized equipment. The armed irregulars (mercenaries and local collaborators) lost 1181 KIA, 3022 WIA, an unknown number MIA as well as 8 tanks. The enemy made minor territorial gains in the towns of Nikishino and Uhlehorsk. Ukrainian Armed Forces lost 107 KIA, 469 WIA, 31 MIA, 17 tanks and 14 units of artillery. Debaltsevo and the open fields between it and the Ukrainian artillery positions in Svetlodarsk remained in Ukrainian hands.
This state of affairs was totally unacceptable to the Kremlin ahead of the upcoming Minsk ceasefire negotiations on February 11, 2015. Additional Russian regular forces had to be brought in to achieve the objective, quite literally at all cost. The perceived value of this objective is illustrated by the fact that during the Minsk negotiations Putin insisted that Debaltsevo was surrounded while Poroshenko said it was not. The most cursory look at a topographical map would have revealed that anybody actually “surrounding” Debaltsevo to the west would be turned to hamburger in minutes. The center of this literal killing field was a small cluster of houses on a farmland crossroad known as Lohvynovo.
And so the second “successful” push into Debaltsevo was manned almost exclusively by Russian forces hurriedly transported by train and truck from just across the border. This force was commanded by Major-General Lentsov, the very same Lentsov that earlier had observed Ukrainian positions in Debaltsevo as part of the OSCE monitoring mission.
Despite this OSCE betrayal, the effectiveness of this
Ukrainian killing field can be best described in terms of Muscovite
casualty reports in this sector during their second (“successful”)
assault on Debaltsevo .
8 Feb 20 KIA, 54WIA, 31MIA;
9 Feb 28 KIA, 56 WIA;
10 Feb 68 KIA, 133 WIA;
11 Feb 126 KIA, 249 WIA, 9 MIA
12 Feb n/a
13 Feb 73 KIA, 145 WIA, 26 MIA, 9 units of armour destroyed
14 Feb 181 KIA*, 185 WIA, 166 MIA*, 9 units of armour destroyed *(incl. losses during rocket attack as the 268 Guards artillery brigade arrived at Ilovaisk railway station 12 KIA, 82 “MIA”)
15 Feb 68 KIA, 92 WIA, 2 MIA, 15 units of armour destroyed
16 Feb* 3 KIA, 1 unit of armour destroyed *(Ukrainian artillery observed a ceasefire from midnight Sunday, as per the Minsk agreement until it was clear that the Russian side had no intention at all to comply)
17 Feb 51 KIA, 64 WIA, 3 units of armour destroyed
18 Feb 20 KIA, 31 WIA, 8 units of armour destroyed
19 Feb 32 KIA, 57 WIA, 11 MIA
The compliance with the ceasefire agreement by Ukrainian artillery beginning Sunday midnight 15 February 2015 is likely what allowed Muscovite forces to dig in on the western flank and bring in armour unmolested. By the time the artillery was allowed to reply it was too late.
Ukrainian forces withdrew from Debaltsevo beginning 18 February 2015.
Accurate reporting of Ukrainian losses is difficult to find, but careful review through the fog of war shows 325 KIA to be the most accurate figure for this second battle and subsequent retreat.
This second battle of Debaltsevo proved that the Minsk II
agreement was stillborn, although strangely President Petro Poroshenko
continued to implement many of its provisions. The text of the
agreement is as follows:
• Immediate and full ceasefire in particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts of Ukraine and its strict fulfilment as of 00.00 midnight (Kiev time) on Feb. 15, 2015.
• Pull-out of all heavy weapons by both sides to equal distance with the aim of creation of a security zone on minimum 50 kilometres apart for artillery of 100mm calibre or more, and a security zone of 70km for MLRS and 140 kilometres for MLRS Tornado-S, Uragan, Smerch and tactical missile systems Tochka U.
– for Ukrainian troops, from actual line of contact;
– for armed formations of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts of Ukraine, from the contact line in accordance with the Minsk memorandum as of Sept. 19, 2014
• The pullout of the above mentioned heavy weapons has to start no later than the second day after the ceasefire and finish within 14 days.
• This process will be assisted by OSCE with the support of the Trilateral Contact Group.
• Effective monitoring and verification of ceasefire regime and pullout of heavy weapons by OSCE will be provided from the first day of pullout, using all necessary technical means such as satellites, drones, radio-location systems etc.
• On the first day after the pullout a dialogue is to start on modalities of conducting local elections in accordance with the Ukrainian legislation and the Law of Ukraine “On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts,” and also about the future of these districts based on the above mentioned law.
• Without delays, but no later than 30 days from the date of signing of this document, a resolution has to be approved by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, indicating the territory which falls under the special regime in accordance with the law “On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts,” based in the line set up by the Minsk Memorandum as of Sept. 19, 2014.
• Provide pardon and amnesty by way of enacting a law that forbids persecution and punishment of persons in relation to events that took place in particular departments of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts of Ukraine.
• Provide release and exchange of all hostages and illegally held persons, based on the principle of “all for all”. This process has to end – at the latest – on the fifth day after the pullout (of weapons).
• Provide safe access, delivery, storage and distribution of humanitarian aid to the needy, based on an international mechanism.
• Define the modalities of a full restoration of social and economic connections, including social transfers, such as payments of pensions and other payments (income and revenue, timely payment of communal bills, restoration of tax payments within the framework of Ukrainian legal field)
• With this aim, Ukraine will restore management over the segment of its banking system in the districts affected by the conflict, and possibly, an international mechanism will be established to ease such transactions.
• Restore full control over the state border by Ukrainian government in the whole conflict zone, which has to start on the first day after the local election and end after the full political regulation (local elections in particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts based on the law of Ukraine and Constitutional reform) by the end of 2015, on the condition of fulfilment of Point 11 – in consultations and in agreement with representatives of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts within the framework of the Trilateral Contact Group.
• Pullout of all foreign armed formations, military equipment, and also mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine under OSCE supervision. Disarmament of all illegal groups.
• Constitutional reform in Ukraine, with the new Constitution to come into effect by the end of 2015, the key element of which is decentralisation (taking into account peculiarities of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, agreed with representatives of these districts), and also approval of permanent legislation on special status of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in accordance with the measures spelt out in the footnotes, by the end of 2015.
The provisions of the ceasefire are honoured mostly in their breach. There are dozens and often hundreds of violations and heavy artillery shellings by the terrorists reported daily. The casualty count of Ukrainian soldiers as well as civilians continues to rise daily. What follows is the description of major assaults across cease fire lines.
On 3 June 2015 there was a major assault on the town of Mariinka by several hundred pro-Russian troops supported by armour. This assault was repelled. The enemy casualties included 14 Russian servicemen, 6 units of armour and a few dozen “terrorists”.
The OSCE observer mission had found it near impossible to observe or verify Minsk II compliance by the “pro-Russian” side. On 9 August 2015 four OSCE vehicles were incinerated in Donetsk.
On 10 August 2015 the “pro-Russians” attempted an assault on the town of Starohnativka supported by 10 tanks and 10 APS’s. President Poroshenko authorized the movement and subsequent employment of heavy artillery. The assault was rebuffed and the Ukrainian counterattack moved the previous line of contact to a high ground some 2km. eastward. Reports state that this Russian assault was commanded by the notorious Maj. Gen. Lentsov of OSCE and Debaltsevo fame.
A factor that may have had more effect than the Minsk II accords is the presence in Ukraine of at least 300 American military instructors since mid-April 2015. The implications of this are not lost on the Kremlin.
Interestingly, the American instructors at Ukraine’s Yavoriv Polyhon training grounds are learning much from their students. American forces are trained to quell small insurrections while supported by airpower and electronic communications. They have not faced a sophisticated fully mechanized opponent on the ground since the Korean War. Today they listen carefully to men who have fought Russian armour, survived MLRS missile attacks and commanded under conditions of total radio jamming. Americans are relearning the old truism -- armies are trained to fight the last war, not the next.